Thursday, October 28, 2010

Days 110 and 111: Kill Bill

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #134
Year: 2003
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #208
Year: 2004
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman and David Carradine

Tonight, I'll be blogging both parts of this two-part movie in one post during the commercial breaks and halftime of the Suns-Jazz game. Seeing as Volume 2 isn't so much a sequel to Volume 1 as it is a second act to the same film released a year later, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to talk about one without talking about the other, and trying to separate the film into two posts would just end up feeling awkward. Somehow, even though I consider myself a fan of Quentin Tarantino's work, I had never seen the Kill Bill flicks until these past two days. I liked them. They had their fair share of flaws – we're talking about what essentially amounts to Tarantino at his most expansive for a solid four hours here, so some dead space is inevitable – but overall, they're an enjoyable viewing experience, and they're packed with more "Oh shit!" moments than any of his other films – and Tarantino films are infamously loaded with such moments. So even though the last four hours of film I've consumed have been a somewhat uneven experience, they've been mostly quite good, and almost always a lot of fun.

I spent way too much time preparing for this blog post by thinking about how feminists – or, rather, my stereotypical view of extremely radical feminists – might have felt about the Kill Bill movies. On one hand, Uma Thurman's character is a strong, independent female lead. She kicks massive amounts of ass and doesn't apologize for it. She is a one-woman unilateral wrecking crew on a revenge mission of the most deeply personal nature imaginable. She doesn't take shit from anyone, least of all men who think they can take advantage of her just because she's a woman. On the other hand, though, she relies completely on men to provide the means for her mission. A male kung fu master trains her, and a male sword maker forges for her the Japanese steel she needs. When she finally completes her revenge four hours and countless corpses later, she does it in order to be a loving mother and settle into domestic life. Plus, this is a script written by a man that tosses the word "bitch" around like it has the right. In short, I have no idea how the average feminist felt about these movies, but I do know they send out a lot of mixed signals as to the role and status of women. Fortunately for me, I don't really care, and I watched these movies primarily to be entertained. I've just been made keenly aware of the feminist view of movies since Roger Ebert has been re-tweeting all kinds of links on the subject lately, and it's not often that I watch a movie with a female protagonist as strong as Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo.

As I alluded to before, the Kill Bill saga is a truly epic endeavor by Quentin Tarantino. Stretching across two movies, ten chapters, and four hours, it tells the story of a pregnant bride (known only as The Bride for the first three hours or so, but later discovered to be named Beatrix Kiddo) shot in the head on her wedding day by an ex-lover, the titular Bill. The story isn't told strictly chronologically, so we only get occasional glimpses into the motivations of Beatrix and Bill over the course of the films. Origin stories come and go and characters are introduced and killed as Tarantino sees fit. The only thing that's for certain the entire time you're watching the movies is that they absolutely will culminate in a showdown between Bill and the Bride. As another Tarantino character, Lt. Aldo Raine, would say, he's "a slave to appearances," and despite its sometimes unpredictable nature, Kill Bill is very much a genre film, and without the foregone conclusion for an ending, it wouldn't really be the movie Tarantino set out to make. So we get to enjoy the satisfying conclusion that we could have seen coming as soon as we knew what was going on in the movie, about five minutes into the first part.

The movie isn't without flaws, though, and a lot of them can be attributed to its marathon length. Had Tarantino shaved off the weakest hour of Kill Bill and sewn the two shortened parts into one three-hour movie, he quite possibly would have ended up with his longest and best film. But he didn't, so we have to suffer through a fully animated origin story for Lucy Liu's character that had me checking my watch every five minutes. To take that specific complaint one step further and make it a general one, we have to watch far too many scenes that don't include Beatrix, and considering their characters will almost uniformly meet their fate at the edge of her blade, it's difficult to care about anything that happens to them along the way. I'm not saying these scenes are entirely useless, but they really should be a lot shorter. There's a whole Yakuza intrigue subplot to this movie that Tarantino tries to convince us matters, but everything that isn't directly linked to Beatrix's revenge feels superfluous, precisely because QT does such a good job with the scenes that are.

So Kill Bill doesn't quite rise to the level of Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, or probably even Reservoir Dogs. It's a little too smugly aware of its campiness, and it's certainly longer than it needs to be. But is it entertaining? Oh, hell yes. If the trail of bodies that this film's characters so recklessly leave in their wake doesn't make you smile, then I would presume that your idea of entertainment is somewhat different from mine. It's a bit exhausting, so I'm not sure how often I'll revisit it, but I consider the four hours I spent watching Kill Bill to have been four hours well spent.

The Good: The score by The RZA, about whom I know nothing, reminds me of Ennio Morricone's Western scores in some very positive ways. Anytime the camera focuses on Beatrix's eyes and we hear a certain theme, for example, something incredibly fucking awesome is about to happen.

The Bad: The animated origin story for O-Ren absolutely fell flat for me.

The Skinny: It's hard for me to understand why Volume 1 is seventy spots higher than the more consistent Volume 2, but I'm more than okay with both films being on the list.


  1. Brad, I don't think I'm one of the radical feminists you were thinking of, but I do think that the Bride's character gives a typical portrait of women today.

    How, you ask? Well, because of the feminism movements, women have so many more choices available to them. Among those choices are having legitimate careers, being childfree, getting an education, and being a stay at home mom. Any woman brought up today is going to feel torn in many directions at once. Am I copping out by being a stay at home mom? What did I sacrifice when I pursued my career? I know that I think often how I'll balance my desire for a family with my desire to do journalism. And I think that is what most women want to be able to do--to balance these opposing forces in their lives.

    Kiddo had pursued her career, and was ready to give up the danger to keep her child safe. I don't think there is anything wrong with a portrayal of a woman as empowered as the Bride who makes a difficult choice to stop her career for her child. It's just Kiddo's way of balancing her life.

  2. Well said. I'm glad contemplating the movie from that angle wasn't totally off base in the first place.

  3. This is my absolute favorite Tarantino.
    I actually love it because of all the experimenting that Quentin was doing. Which you seemed to not be a fan of.
    Let me start off by saying that I think the O-Ren Ishii animation scene is one of my favorite chapters out of the whole saga.
    I do think it's important to know all of the backstories to these characters because Tarantino wants you to feel for these characters.
    If the development hadn't been there then it would have literally been 3 hours of a woman killing a bunch of people. Which I'm sure would be awesome and fun to watch, but would it mean anything?
    I think the reason I love Kill Bill so much is because every death of a main character is a loss. From Vernita Greene who now has left behind a single father and a motherless child, to O-ren Ishii who's death has completely corrupted the Japanese underground which will now have to be rebuilt, to Bud who on top of not having anything in his life doesn't even really want to be a part of any of this. (I think that's why he gets closer than anyone else to defeating B because out of the five people he probably deserved it the most.) The only one who doesn't have a true backstory or any emotional resonance is Daryl Hanna's perfectly portrayed Elle Driver. In my opinion, this is because she is supposed to be pure evil. Her intentions are never what they should be, the only reason she doesn't like B is because she had a fling with the man that she wants but doesn't want her back. She is completely irrational and doesn't think anything fully through, and she has the most epic final battle out of everyone else. Then there's Bill, a character that we, the audience, have grown to despise. Surely after the events in part 1 there can be nothing good about this guy right? But then that dinner table scene happens and not only did I somewhat like Bill I actually really didn't want to see him die. Which is why he has the least violent showdown because the audience doesn't want to see his guts strewn across the yard.
    Uma Thurman's performance is perfection. She really is the only female actress who I can ever imagine playing this role and holding up 2 movies, basically, by herself.
    Now, tell me, if none of that characterization had been there and it was just 3 hours of a woman kicking ass would have enjoyed it half as much? Would all of those "oh shit" moments really have meant anything or made you say "oh shit" if you didn't really care about the character who it was happening to?
    The answer is no. In fact, if the movie had been like that then I seriously doubt it would even be on the top 250.
    This is Quentin's best film and I can not wait for Vol. 3 in a few years.
    I've watched these so many times and everytime I can't find a single scene that I think could be edited out.