Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Kill Bill

Grade : A+ (for the whole) Year : 2003 (Vol. 1) & 2004 (Vol. 2) Director : Quentin Tarantino Running Time : 4hr 8min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: January 2005

Is it possible to even say anything new about “Kill Bill” after 15 months- when “Vol. 1” was released- after first starting the Bride’s bloody epic journey of revenge?

Yeah; it’s about damn time I’m chiming in officially with my thoughts on the whole freakin’ thing.

I think I first saw the greatness in Quentin Tarantino’s payback epic- written and directed as an intended whole, but split up when it got too long- when I saw the first five minutes of “Vol. 1” while screening a print the night before it opened. It sets the tone for the entire saga to come. The tragedy of the circumstances in which the Bride (Uma Thurman in one of the greatest of recent female performances and roles, bringing inspired honor and humanity to the role) was gunned down in her wedding dress at the hands of Bill and his Deadly Viper Assassin Squad. The daring visual style of the film when we see- in black-and-white- a “blood-splattered Bride” (to use one of Tarantino’s chapter headings) shot at point blank by Bill and lying at- what looks like- a coroner’s table. The trademark Tarantino soundtrack (no other filmmaker has a better ear for music in their films), filled to the brim with classics and obscure bands and songs, started with Nancy Sinatra’s haunting “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” And of course, the dialogue- sharp, smart, and deviously delivered by an actor at the top of their game (as are all who are being directed by Tarantino). From the time the old-fashioned logos for the Shaw Brothers (martial arts filmmakers from the ’70s) and our “Feature Presentation” came up- followed by an appropriate quote from an unlikely source- to the first chapter title card, I knew I was in for another memorable Tarantino film.

QT didn’t disappoint. Sure, there were some scenes that could’ve been cut (like the leadup to the Bride’s escape- which is a little too depraved, even for a Tarantino movie (you couldn’t have rewritten it Quentin?)- in “Vol. 1” and a pointless scene with Bill’s brother Budd (the always-entertainingly sleazy Michael Madsen from “Reservoir Dogs”) at his job in “Vol. 2”), and maybe the final confrontation between the Bride and Bill lacks the bite it should’ve had, but why carp with Quentin. As far as I’m concerned, he’s 4 1/2 for 4 1/2- if you care to look at the two “Bill” films as individiual parts of a whole, as well as include his entertaining segment in the otherwise horrid “Four Rooms” (plus, a good Fellini reference is always welcome (the geeks will get it))- and still one of the freshest, funniest, and most innovative filmmakers to come out of the ’90s (the battle’s on between him and Richard Linklater as to who’s the best). With his thrilling “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” in October 2003, he made the best pure action movie in 6 years (since John Woo’s “Face/Off”), a martial arts and street fighting gem that raised the bar and put the stale “Matrix” movies to shame. And then, when “Vol. 2” hit screens in April of 2004, Tarantino turned the story on its’ head, starting out as a down-and-dirty little thriller- a la Oliver Stone’s underrated “U-Turn”- before morphing it into an oddly touching family drama when the Bride finally comes face-to-face with Bill, the seductively charming crime boss she betrayed played with devious brilliance and odd empathy by ’70s icon David Carradine (“Kung Fu”).

When he set out to make “Kill Bill” (he’s been planing it with Thurman- who receives character credit- since “Pulp Fiction”), Tarantino set out to make the ultimate “Grindhouse” flick. Before I continue, what is a “Grindhouse” movie? Well, according to Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles (who actually spent a few days on the set while shooting was in China) in an article he wrote after conversing with QT, “It is pure exploitation joy… Kung Fu, Sex, Revenge, Murder, Blood Gorged Frames, Fast Cars, Fast Women, and a pumping pulsing soundtrack that makes your **** or ******* hard.” Basically, it’s the type of movie Tarantino watched as a youngster in the ’70s and at the video store he so famously worked at before he turned to filmmaking with 1992’s slickly entertaining “Reservoir Dogs.” Fair enough; still, why- after the enormous critical success of “Dogs,” 1994’s Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction” (one of the greatest of all movies; one of only seven I’d consider a true “work of art”), and 1997’s profoundly underrated “Jackie Brown” (a movie that’s aged like fine wine in this reviewer’s eyes; it’s almost as good as “Pulp”)- would Tarantino want to put that acclaim on the line with something that sounds- in Knowles’ description of “grindhouse” cinema- as disreputable and lacking in artistic integrity as his earlier successes weren’t (at least in the artistic integrity part; the constant profanity and sometimes harsh violence of “Dogs,” “Pulp,” and “Brown” assured them of sly disreputability)? Probably because it’s as far from the sort of film you’d expect from Tarantino after such success as you can get (well, save for his still-in-progress writing of “Inglorious Bastards,” a world war-time epic he’s been writing almost as long as he was “Bill”).

Bless him for it. Not only did me make the ultimate “grindhouse” film- he made it accessible for those of us who’ve never sat through such a film (or at least as many as he has). You like spaghetti westerns? Tarantino’s got elements of that- mostly the unique music (by Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov)- for you. You like exploitation thrillers? Yup, we got some of that too (the Michael Madsen and Darryl Hannah stuff in both films, as well as the Bride’s escape from her coma). Blaxploitation films? One could argue that’s where the early “Vol. 1” scene with the Bride and Vivica A. Fox’s assassin comes from. Japanese Anime? Hell, Tarantino even has that- a tour de force bit of storytelling recounting the origins of Lucy Lui’s O-Ren- a half-Japanese half-Chinese American (as the film gleefully points out with vicious humor) at the top of Tokyo’s crime underworld- is brought to visceral life using the medium.

You like kung fu and martial arts extravagazas? Boy, are these your kind of films. Sure, you could get the real thing (must-see imports like “The Blind Swordman: Zatoichi,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers” are easily accessible; also check out the Foreign Film shelves at the video stores, most of which also have a Martial Arts section), but Tarantino’s fanboy take on the genre delivers the goods in high style. All the action is hot in these flicks- the brutal, brilliant catfight between the Bride and Fox’s Vernita Green (played with just the right blend of toughness and tenderness by Fox) that starts “Vol. 1” is topped only by the Bride’s “Vol. 2” brawl- which is even more vicious- with Hannah’s one-eyed Elle Driver (whom Hannah plays as a charismatic and diabolical bitch)- but it’s the hard-core swordplay that’ll knock your socks off. Stunningly choreographed by Master Yuen Woo Ping (who outdoes his work on “The Matrix” trilogy and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” here), brilliantly shot by Robert Richardson (an Oliver Stone vet who won an Oscar for “JFK” and should be honored again for keeping up with Tarantino’s vivid, fanboy imagination, which seems to give each scene its’ own look, yet it all seems cohesive as a whole), and edited with note-perfect precision by Tarantino vet Sally Menke, I’ll let you decide what action gets you going more, ’cause there’s a lot to love. You dig the girl-on-girl action between Thurman and Fox or Thurman and Hannah more, so be it (it’s great action); me, I love me the fu. The brief but instense swordfight with Bill at the end of it all that doesn’t end the way you think it will. The lyrical duel between the Bride and Lui’s O-Ren Ishii (whom Lui plays with quiet honor, humanity, and resolve) outside of the House of Blue Leaves in the snow. The exciting and dangerous one-on-one with a mace-swinging Japanese teenager named Gogo Yubari (lethally played by Chiaki Kuriyama). A diabolical bit of business on the streets of Japan between Bill and a gang lead by Michael Jai White in a scene not in either finished film, but available as a deleted scene on the “Vol. 2” DVD. It’s all great stuff, but I find myself always going back to the battle in the House of Blue Leaves, which has the Bride taking on the Crazy 88’s, O-Ren’s personal army of Yukuza fighters, single-handedly. What sets this one apart from all the others? Well, the sheer size for one thing- the enormity of people involved, the complex setups and choreography that were surely involved, the gallons of fake blood spilled during it all- and the fact that it all looks effortless when Tarantino and Menke are done with it, even a switch from color to black-and-white (which was a trick to get past the censors, not a style choice) maintains the energy rough bloodshed onscreen. I thought so in October of 2003 and I think more so now- that “Burly Brawl” between Neo and 100 Agent Smiths in “The Matrix Reloaded?” It looked artificial when I first saw it, it looks more so after Uma takes on the 88’s and their leader, Johnny Mo (legendary star Gordon Lui).

But the chop-socky swordplay isn’t the only thing Tarantino pays homage to from the kung fu flicks of his youth; Tarantino’s too smart a filmmaker for such shallow flash. He also show reverence for the quieter moments of contemplation and themes of honor, loyalty, and the bond between a teacher and student. This is no more evident than in two sequences that probably rate as my favorites from both movies. In “Vol. 1,” it’s the sequence where the Bride goes to Okinawa to see Hattori Hanzo, a retired swordmaker who’s an iconic character in Japanese movies and TV. In Tarantino’s epic, he is played by the legendary martial arts star Sonny Chiba (QT fans will remember the name from Tony Scott’s underrated “True Romance”) as a mentor of old-school charm and warmth, a character who leaves an indelible impression in a minimal amount of scenes because of his likability and humanity instilled by Chiba. His scenes with Thurman are memorable in their subtle wackiness at the start, and by the end, the nobility the two bring to the sense of connection these two must have by the end of the scene, which will resonate through to the end of “Vol. 1” and inform what we’ve already seen. If any doubt of Tarantino’s gifts as a character-driven filmmaker and storyteller still exists, these few minutes will remove them.

In “Vol. 2,” Tarantino calls upon “Vol. 1’s” Johnny Mo- Gordon Lui- to continue that mentoring of the Bride by introducing her to Pai Mei, another classic Japanese character he’s resurrected. Pai Mei is the prototypical samurai master- white robes, white hair, long white beard- with a Tarantino twist of subversiveness that makes him accessible during his brutal training of the Bride, and through Tarantino’s writing- and Lui’s performance- Pai Mei is as charismatic and venerable a character as you could ask for in such an archetypal role. And his message gets through, to the Bride and to us, that physical pain is secondary to mental strength resonates at a time when the Bride- who has been buried alive- needs it most (she went to Pai Mei while still under Bill’s employ). This leads up to “Vol. 2’s” most satisfying moment, when the Bride breaks through her coffin to payback those who wronged her.

All that’s well-and-good, but these films wouldn’t work half as well if they didn’t stop to savor the little moments, the beats in the story and grace notes that, like the ones I mentioned in my “Return of the King” review, turn cinematic spectacle into spectacular cinema. “Kill Bill” is loaded with them. The Bride explaining to Bill why she left him. The Bride’s reaction when she first sees Bill again. A scene with Bill’s pimp father figure Estaban (the great Michael Parks, who plays the small-town sheriff in “Vol. 1”) talking about Bill to the Bride. The reveal of Rufus, the organ player in the Bride’s wedding. The striking tracking shot showing the Bride stalking O-Ren’s right-hand woman Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus). The shocking revelation at the end of “Vol. 1.” The Bride’s waiting for the results of a pregnancy test. Finally, the entire sequence with the Bride’s and Bill’s reunion, which is a Tarantino milestone of smart dialogue, acting, and directing that surprises, entertains, and- could it be?- moves. What’s been a nonstop thrill ride for over three hours becomes a potent family drama, seen through the subversive eyes of Tarantino without forgetting the heart of the matter, showing not only a natural progression from “Jackie Brown” but also a new evolution in Tarantino’s storytelling gifts. When we came out of “Vol. 1” (it was my 4th time seeing it), my mother said that Tarantino was back (as a filmmaker, she meant). Because QT hadn’t made a movie in six years, she was right. From an artistic perspective, however, he never left.

Neither did his ear for music. He got me into listening to the music of Spaghetti Westerns- mostly, the work of Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad & the Ugly”) in the genre, but also some of Luis Bacalov’s work as well- to the point that it’s inspired my compositional track for the past year. He introduced me to the sort of kung fu musical stings and hits that permeated through those movies, as reimagined- and reissued- in the music of The RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. He also found ways to use ethnic music and obscure contemporary songs that worked with the images onscreen and also caught the ear of the viewer. As a musician and moviegoer, I thank him.

So, what took so damn long to get this review written? Inspiration. I started it in October 2003 after I saw “Vol. 1,” and actually got a good start on it. But a hectic work schedule- plus too much time elapsed from when I saw it- prevented me from finishing it, so I decided, “Well, I’ll wait until ‘Vol. 2’ comes out and review the whole.” Fair enough, but again, both factors that lead to the original delay intervened, and I never got to writing it again. Until now. Finally, I was inspired to just get out the soundtracks, rock out to the music (in a matter of speaking), and just get my overall feelings on Tarantino’s latest magnum-opus out. Well, I have, and you know what? I’m kind of happy about how I’ve brought them to light. If it sort of reminds you of why it took Tarantino so long to get “Kill Bill” out, well, it’s entirely coincidental. Or so I’d like to make you believe…

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