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This weekend, Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino returns to movie theatres with sound and fury. It has been nine years since Pulp Fiction stunned the Cannes Film Festival with its violence and wisecracks and, for better or worse, established Tarantino as the most influential new filmmaker of the '90s. After his 1997 follow-up, Jackie Brown, performed poorly, Tarantino withdrew.
His comeback film is just as hyperviolent, stylized, and audacious as the previous releases. Kill Bill—Vol. 1 is basically a revenge story. Uma Thurman plays an angry woman called "The Bride" who was once a member of an elite team of deadly secret agents (a bloodier version of Charlie's Angels). When she wakes up from a coma, she sets out to revenge herself against her former employer, Bill (David Carradine), and fellow agents (Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen)—the same people who slaughtered her fiancé, her friends, the pastor and his wife, and her unborn child in the middle of her wedding ceremony. What follows is a marathon of bloodletting.
If you are even slightly squeamish, be warned—this film is not for you. The various battles are half cartoonish violence, half bloody ballet. Each one is spectacularly choreographed by kung-fu legend Sonny Chiba. The clever, quick, and efficient dialogue keeps most of the audience laughing in spite of their discomfort. But make no mistake: the movie is like a parade of vividly rendered dismemberments, the Bride knocking off her opponents in every gory way you can imagine. Bloodshed does not, of course, make a story inappropriate. History is full of carnage-filled tales, and Scripture has a fair number of them as well. But unlike Pulp Fiction, in which violent villains took turns learning valuable lessons, Kill Bill does not offer any stories about men (or women) learning the error of their ways, though there are isolated moments that acknowledge a sense of right and wrong. In one scene, a retired agent (Fox)—now a loving wife and mother—is confronted in her kitchen, and much blood is shed while her young daughter stands by watching, numb with shock. Tarantino is not being merely twisted—he uses the scene to remind us of all that the Bride herself has lost and suffered. A shred of conscience is clearly alive in the Bride's battered heart, making her capable of occasional mercy. But unless the sequel has some big surprises for us, this film tends to glorify vigilante justice, and vengeance remains the superior, celebrated ethic.
"This is, without question, the bloodiest, goriest, most violent film I've ever forced myself to watch," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "That said, it is impossible to deny the artistry at work in this movie. It's just that I prefer art to be edifying and emotionally rewarding. Kill Bill is neither. It is pure exploitation without much of a point." Mainstream critics are celebrating the film as one of the year's most exhilarating works and proof positive that Tarantino is still a groundbreaking, relevant filmmaker. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) comes close to excusing all of this excess, as many critics seduced by Tarantino's formidable style will, because he knows the movie is made as an homage to the Asian action-flick tradition called "grindhouse movies." But he does admit, "Kill Bill may be a case of overkill. This movie lacks humor, subtext, unpredictability and the rich dialogue that made [Pulp Fiction] so memorable. Instead of rethinking genre movies, here he is a slave to them."
David Denby (The New Yorker) gives Tarantino a thrashing for unethical behavior and challenges the majority of critics for excusing mediocrity in the name of flashy style. He concludes, "Coming out of this dazzling, whirling movie, I felt nothing—not anger, not dismay, not amusement. Nothing."
Kill Bill—Vol. 1 ends at intermission. Just as its star Uma Thurman neatly slices her opponents, so Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein convinced Tarantino to sever his bloody revenge epic in twain. Viewers will have a four-month intermission before the finale arrives in theatres.
from Film Forum, 10/16/03
Last week, Film Forum summarized Quentin Tarantino's new film Kill Bill—Vol. 1 and listed a few early responses from religious press critics.
This week, Tarantino's bloody epic earned more scorn from Christian film reviewers—but it won a few defenders as well. The film, which stars Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Darryl Hannah, and Sonny Chiba, is an homage to the combat-oriented movies that Tarantino cherished as a young moviegoer. While many are offended that viewers could laugh at such rampant cruelty, those who laugh explain their reaction by saying that the scenes are funny because they are so preposterous and exaggerated. Tarantino does indeed find a lot of comedy in his tongue-in-cheek tribute. But he also strives to make us sympathize with his heroine and her quest for revenge the same way that we come to care about the missions of Braveheart and The Patriot. While we may not approve of violent revenge as a motive, surely we can understand it. The question remains open: Will "the Bride" eventually see the futility and damaging effects of her vengeful killing spree? Or will she finish her story as she began, believing that she is the punishing hand of God, justly delivering judgment upon those who so grievously wronged her?
While I share many of the complaints offered up by most religious press critics—primarily, that the film is at times self-indulgent and shallow—I differ from most of them in admitting that I did appreciate many things about the movie. Tarantino is, at times, a masterful director. (At other times he is quite immature and indulgent.) He knows how to fuse music and imagery together in a way that makes for unforgettable scenes, and his work with cinematographer Robert Richardson results in some dazzling rides of color and light. He also knows how to stage an action scene so that it looks like nothing we've seen before.
Granted, Tarantino lavishes all of this amazing style onto a story that is intentionally primitive, ankle-deep, and unsatisfying, at least so far. But it is a type of story that has been an established genre for as long as stories have been told. I wish he would quit giving so much attention to the repulsiveness of his villains, which he does in order to encourage our jubilance when and if they are finally executed (and most of them are.) But I cannot join the majority of the religious press critics who write off the film entirely. Tarantino has accomplished some remarkable craftsmanship here, and that should be acknowledged as much as his failings. If he can find a substantial story to tell, he may yet make a truly great film someday. My full review is at Looking Closer.
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is also impressed. He calls it "a spectacular triumph of style over substance." He highly praises Richardson's cinematography, calling it "awe-inspiring. His lighting and camera movement produce so many jaw-dropping moments I don't know where to begin."
Parks also cautiously addresses the criticism that has been leveled at the film's violence. "Violent it is … but the violence in Kill Bill bothered me much less than in some of this summer's blockbusters. It's violence inspired by comic books and kung fu films. When someone's head gets chopped off, the blood spurts like a fountain, just like the 'black knight' scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And just like that movie, I found myself laughing at the excess of it all. Indeed the sheer amount of blood and severed body parts in Kill Bill becomes almost comic."
But Michael Medved counters this with an all-out condemnation, calling the film a "putrid and puerile martial arts epic. Defenders of the movie will cite the self-conscious invocation of hyper-violent Japanese anime comic books, just as they will note the movie's fleeting tributes to samurai classics and spaghetti westerns. The artsy references may provide busy work for film critics and graduate students, but ordinary moviegoers will feel insulted and ripped off. The extent of the gory, sadistic violence, gutter language and unspeakable obscene sex references makes you wonder what more a movie must offer to receive the rating of 'NC-17.'"
Movieguide's critic says, "Moral audiences that might accidentally stumble into this movie will need to take a bath immediately afterwards—to cleanse the heart and mind of the graphic images of rape and every type of violence." He adds that a good deal of the movie is just "a wretched exercise in excess that neglects elemental story and character devices that help audiences identify with the protagonist."
"[Pulp Fiction] set the standard for brutality and blood lust," writes Stephen Isaac (Plugged In). "It also inspired multitudes of gory rip-offs. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 makes Pulp Fiction look like a Disney flick." He goes on to quote Tarantino extensively, displaying the director's own lack of perspective on his own work and its potential negative impact. "Tarantino brags that his film elevates 'girl power' and tips its hat to the way (he thinks) women should hold their own in the world. To the contrary, Kill Bill demeans, degrades and devalues women at every turn. They're portrayed as vengeful, heartless beasts, bent on death and destruction. What, in fact, he's doing is opening them up to contempt and abuse."
Mainstream critics are divided over the film as well. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says the movie "shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through 'Flight of the Bumble Bee'—or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for 'Lady of Spain.' I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It's kind of brilliant."
Andrew Sarris (The New York Observer) celebrates the film as a "soulful kung fu flick [that] does for Uma Thurman as an action icon what Sergio Leone's 'Man with No Name' trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), did for Clint Eastwood."
Sarris goes on to explain what he believes makes Tarantino an important director: "For one thing, he is the most casually color-blind Caucasian filmmaker around; not merely in terms of a liberal 'tolerance' for African-Americans and Asians, but with a deep and passionate embrace of all their cultural nuances." And he adds, "What redeems Mr. Tarantino's violence from mere exploitation is his genuine affection for the genres he celebrated, particularly his unironic appreciation, in Kill Bill, of the various moral codes by which his heroines conduct their lives and establish limits to their warrior behavior. But what makes him especially unusual is a fondness and respect for women that never lapses into lust or lechery."
But elsewhere, Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) shows contempt not just for Tarantino's film, but for the whole genre the director is seeking to revitalize. "Once it was possible to assume that Tarantino's pop culture references were an ironic critique on the barrenness of media-age culture, but there's no mistaking it now: Tarantino's work is not a commentary on the barrenness. It is the barrenness."
from Film Forum, 10/23/03
Alan Willcox (Movies Matter) takes on Tarantino's Kill Bill—Vol. 1, and offers viewers a caution: "Although Tarantino's violence isn't as cheap or vulgar as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger films, it's still gory, and viewers with serious aversions to violence should avoid the film." Still, he is impressed with the director's stylish, nostalgic revenge flick: "Kill Bill is a completely derivative work that is totally original—and that is Tarantino's niche, if not his brilliance."
from Film Forum, 10/30/03
Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu homage, Kill Bill—Vol. 1, continued to inspire discussion and debate about its brash style and intense—perhaps merely indulgent—violence. "Tarantino doesn't direct films," argues Michael Leary (Matthews House Project). "He pieces together symphonies of disparate bits of cultural data and conducts them together in the editing room. Is there anything of substance behind the bloody curtains of Kill Bill? Probably not."