The fourth film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
The backstory: So there's this elite cadre of hitmen, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), and yes, this is essentially an infinitesimally less campy version of the "Foxforce Five" premise from Pulp Fiction. One of them, Uma Thurman, is gunned down on her wedding day by the rest. But she lives to wreak revenge.
So the plot is, she has a list of five people to kill. She finds them. She kills them. That's it. That's the whole movie, folks. And Vol. 1 only covers the first two names on the list.
A few months ago, when I heard Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein's plan was to chop this four-hour epic into two installments, I felt screwed. Titanic and the Lord of the Rings films proved long running times DON'T always affect box office returns. And I definitely didn't want to have to wait another four months and ten days to find out how the damn thing ends. I mean, that's gotta be a shorter wait than for any feature-length sequel in movie history, but still, it's cruel. Bad call, I thought.
Well, I was wrong. I needed that halftime break. I needed it for my sanity.
(Don't get me wrong. When Tarantino comes to play, he don't fuck around. He rolls with the big boys. He comes to be remembered. I plan on seeing this again soon. I don't know if I'd call it a brilliant film, but there's undeniable chunks of brilliance within it. So yeah, if you enjoy action films at all, it's a must see.)
This is really not the film it was marketed as. It's not a rollicking good time. It's not a rock and roll party. It's not "Woo-hoo, go get 'em!" It's not, in a word, easy.
It has been referred to as the single most violent American movie ever made. Is that true? Well, that puts it up against Saving Private Ryan, and I'm not making that call, not while I want to get to sleep tonight. But here's the thing. Those guys were ordered to fight. And we all have our tragedy glasses on - "Oh, isn't this horrid, we must NEVER allow it to happen again." Whereas, in this flick, these characters are just murderous fucking psychos. And, like in A Clockwork Orange, you're encouraged to root for them.
I'm reminded of the line Tarantino wrote in True Romance describing Sonny Chiba (who, hey, shows up in Kill Bill!) in Street Fighter: "He's not so much a good guy as he is a bad motherfucker." The Bride is an antihero at best, and once we've all seen Vol. 2, we can get pretentious and hypothesize around whether this tale is meant to roughly conform to Greek tragedy (especially concerning the role of The Bride's child). This was how I always saw Reservoir Dogs, given that each character's demise can be tied to his own fierce bonds of loyalty, and Mr. Pink, who doesn't believe in tipping, gets out the door with the diamonds. But I digress:
So it's not just the blood that gets to you. It's the mentality: cold, cruel, and merciless.
But we do need to talk about the blood. Hoses of blood. Fountains. Sprinklers. Pools. They went through hundreds of gallons of the stuff on the set, and that's not hyperbole. Everybody's used to one or two grisly murders in an R-rated flick. But here, it's a figure that probably gets into the triple digits. So if you don't think your stomach can take that, please, do yourself a favor and stay home.
Now, what's the typical human reaction when we see blood behave so athletically? We laugh. Tarantino knows this. He's a master of surprise, and extremism, and of switching gears in a microsecond. I personally don't laugh when Marvin gets accidentally shot in the face in Pulp Fiction, or when Mr. Blonde talks into the severed ear in Reservoir Dogs, but I've accepted that I'm different from most professionally jaded New Yorkers, and I know that this an acceptable, even an expected response, but I'm too busy feeling shock. It's a form of comedy not often used, and one that I highly respect.
So, when confronted with this torrent, this inundation, this maelstrom of blood, it's easy for Tarantino to claim homage to samurai films that only six Americans have ever seen, and it's easy for a contemporary audience to react, "Oh, I get it! It's a cartoon! Hyuck hyuck!" Sure, fine. Defend it however you want. All I'm saying is, I sensed gravity in those moments and I heard a hell of a lot of screaming and did it feel realistic? No. But it didn't feel cartoonish either.
It felt, well, like a nightmare. The atmosphere of a literal fearscape. The simplistic inevitability.
I think Tarantino wanted a 180 from Pulp Fiction's tone. I think he feinted high and then socked us in the gut. And it worked. Bold as hell, and he pulled it off. Now I'm sick to my stomach, but I respect the bastard.
So anyway, that's my piece. Here's the rundown:
MANY, MANY, MANY SPOILERS.
AS IN, I'M RUINING THE WHOLE THING. I SWEAR.
OKAY, JUST SO YOU KNOW.
Black and white. Single take. Tight closeup on Thurman. She's on the floor, covered in blood, breathing in spasms, dying (seemingly). Bill's voice, offscreen (as it remains for this entire first film), murmurs a few gentle insults, justifications. He cocks his revolver to execute her. She struggles to speak. "Bill, it's your baby." Before she finishes the sentence, he shoots her through the head. There is no tasteful cut to black preceding this.
Very Very Long Credits Sequence
Chapter One: 2
The bride knocks on the door of a cozy house in the suburbs. Vernita answers and the Bride socks her in the face. The two immediately begin to brawl, first wrecking all the furniture, then slashing with kitchen knives, which they awkwardly hide behind their backs when Vernita's four-year-old daughter suddenly arrives via the big yellow school bus. The moment broken, Vernita offers coffee, and they move to the kitchen to sling exposition peppered with at least fourteen "bitch"es. Vernita suggests they continue the battle later, where they won't be bothered, and the Bride agrees.
But Vernita's lie is made plain when she surprises the Bride with a pistol hidden inside a cereal box (like a prize, get it?). Her first shot misses and she does not get a chance at a second. The Bride turns around to discover the little girl was watching. She saw her mother be stabbed to death and slump to the floor.
This is the first instance in the film - the first of many - where you're presented with a situation you really can't laugh your way out of. I take it as a portent that the death here is not meant to be taken lightly. Even when we can't help but chuckle. (If that makes any sense.) To underline the consequences, The Bride tells the girl that if she's still mad about it when she grows up, she'll be waiting for her. And she exits the house, climbs into a yellow pickup emblazoned "PUSSY WAGON", and crosses Copperhead off her list.
--NOW THIS PART IS CRUCIAL.-- Vernita isn't number one on the list. She's number two, hence the chapter title. Number One, O-Ren Ishii, is already crossed off. This means that Tarantino has deliberately removed the "suspense" from the rest of the film. When you watch Chapter 5, which leads up to the confrontation with O-Ren, you're not supposed to be wondering, "Gee, is Uma gonna win?" He wants you to KNOW she is, so you can just sit back and watch all the ass be kicked, as though divinely ordained.
Chapter Two: The Blood-Spattered Bride
We return to the Bride's wedding day, to that dusty church in El Paso, Texas
. The Sheriff (who might as well be playing the same exact character he did in the opening scene of From Dusk Till Dawn
) investigates the massacre. When the Bride spits in his face (just like a snake, get it?) he realizes she's not dead despite the gushing head wound. She goes to the coma ward, where Elle Driver is sent to perform a lethal injection. At the last moment, Bill calls her cell phone, fondling a samurai sword and mumbling about honor, and orders her to abort the mission. She reluctantly does.
Four years later. The Bride awakes in horror, reliving the instant of her shooting. She feels her skull and taps a steel plate. She hears voices and feigns sleep.
Here we get yet another "unnecessary" moment that can't be excused as a gag: Buck, the redneck orderly who's been pimping her paralyzed body to his buddies for $75 a pop, and having his own way with her Satan knows how many times. She waits for an opportune moment, and dispatches them. How, I don't have the strength to relate to you right now.
But there's a problem. After fourteen hundred days of pooling blood, her legs don't work. She locates a wheelchair, travels to the parking lot, and in the backseat of the Pussy Wagon (the keys to which she liberated from Buck) she wills her feet back to life. During that, she imagines:
Chapter Three: The Origin of O-Ren Ishii
This chapter is captured entirely through anime. That decision blew me away. And it's not a cheap gag; it goes on for a while and is as morally repulsive as anything in the rest of the film. So, once again, there goes that "cartoon" theory. The style isn't slick and flashy like, say, Ninja Scroll
, it's rough, splotchy, jagged.
O-Ren is a hidden witness to her parents' murder by the yakuza. Still a child, she gets the guilty mob boss alone and slices him open. Moving up the ranks of assassindom, she becomes a legend by the age of twenty.
I'm getting vaguer and vaguer with the details here because as I'm replaying these scenes in my mind I'm realizing the full impact comes from the specific visual presentation, and synopsis feels a little useless. (Yes, this is a cop-out, thank you.) As I said before, it's not what, it's how. I wouldn't describe it as style over substance, more like style becoming substance.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is the location of the boardroom scene in which we learn how O-Ren, despite being half-Chinese and American-born, is able to keep control over the entire Tokyo underworld. Now, if you've EVER seen ANY gangster movie in your life, I'm sure you can guess what her methods are, but we are treated to one of the film's most explicitly gruesome slayings, capped (get it?) by a wonderful monologue by Miss Liu which tops (get it? get it? Okay, I'll stop now) her "Your methods are antiquated and weak!" speech in Charlie's Angels for sheer schizophrenia. Give this girl a raise. I would pay to watch her read toilet paper.
Chapter Four: The Man from Okinawa
The Bride travels to Japan to locate a retired master swordsman and convince him she needs his work. Due to an old debt, he fashions one more evil instrument of violence (disappointingly, this happens off-screen) and bequeathes it to her.
This sequence is a gentle interlude, full of respect, joviality, and sweetness (it was at this point I realized Uma was fully carrying the film with her intense focus and impressive range, and wondered if she will become a star much more in demand) and completely lacking any "action". It is the calm before the storm.
Chapter Five: Showdown at House of Blue Leaves
The Bride comes to town and it all goes down. She and her sword slay 88 yakuza in what you know, even before it begins, is a sequence that carves out a place in film history for itself. Pure kinetic art. Almost makes you wish Tarantino only ever wanted to make kung fu flicks.
The one-on-one battle with O-Ren follows, set against a gorgeous backdrop of indigo sky and falling snow. Much is learned about skill and respect. There seems to be a maturity here not found in Tarantino's other work.
And aside from a cliffhanger detail about the Bride's past that made many in my theater shout "Awwwww!", hooked, all that's left is to contemplate what Volume Two will hold. If you've been reading about the film's shoot, you know there's still Beijing and Texas to travel to. I suspect the next installment will feature more gunfights than sword showdowns, because how the hell could House of Blue Leaves be topped, but then, Tarantino has tread that ground before many times, and I wouldn't mind being proved wrong.
The final thing I want to mention is the score. I kept getting the feeling it was taken from other films. So I checked it out, and guess what? Most of it was. Hip-hop, baby. Sampling. And I won't knock it, because it worked. It worked like mad.