The Death of William, First Act
KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003, 6)
Fanboy that I am, I rushed out on the first day to see KILL BILL, VOLUME ONE, the comeback film by Quentin Tarantino, just awake from six years in a coma. Tarantino was getting married, but the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad had other ideas, and he was the sole survivor of the massacre at the church.
OK, not really. But KB-1 feels too much like Tarantino *did* slip into a coma and left behind the talent that made him so exciting in the 1990s. Now don’t get me wrong, much of KB-1 is very good and it’s downright brilliant in flashes. The opening knife fight showdown between Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox is pure QT at his best — the juxtaposition of the candy-colored house, the school bus, the daughter and the serious ass-kicking going on. There is a moment late in the movie involving spanking (I will say no more) that had me rolling in the aisles. And there’s a demented genius to any movie that can make the line “lucky for her, he was a pedophile” work.
Most of the stylistic gambles Tarantino makes also pay off handsomely. There is a sequence entirely in Japanese anime that was quite good in itself, but it both solved the problem of how to present Lucy Liu’s backstory without an X-rating and deepened Uma’s characterization as the typical Tarantino hero — someone who conceives of life entirely in the terms he picked up from lowbrow and outre pop culture.
KB-1 is a revenge film, following Uma’s character The Bride as she hunts down the assassins who ruined her wedding. And she kicks butt. And what else, you ask? Well, frankly, not much. This sounds strange coming from me, but KB-1 is entirely too focused. For the most part, it’s basically just 100 minutes of underdeveloped characters fighting in the name of a revenge scheme of which we learn very little and have little emotional investment. It has a straight-line, mathematical quality that finally gets mechanical and repetitive, and frankly, a bit boring.
In a late scene, Uma kills or maims about 50 yakuza sidekicks, and then, just as she’s about to get to Mr. Big, a second wave of a hundred more show up. I was groaning — it was pure self-indulgence on QT’s part. The ass-kicking is often brilliantly done, no question, but it’s all just finally too much. We (or at least *I*) want more than that or at least some variance from 40 minutes of a sword-wielding Uma in a yellow cat suit slicing off limbs. And I *know* from his previous three films, and even several moments in this one that QT can give us better than an empty exercise in po-mo gawking.
What KB-1 lacks is what kicked Tarantino’s 90s output into the stratosphere — his goofily discursive comic sequences and humanizing touches. He also left behind most of his distinctive dialogue style — the postmodern-serious mix of big-talking losers, hyperviolence, pop culture banality and accidental wisdom. Take PULP FICTION — Jules and Vincent Vega were hit men, but they do stuff other than kick ass 24/7. They discuss the ethics of foot massages, go out on dates with the Boss’s wife, read (faux) biblical warnings to their victims, compare notes on European fast food. And Jules and Vincent have different fates according to how they react to the hand of God. In other words, though stylized and movie-ish, they were well-rounded creations and plunked in the middle of a universe with a lot of stuff going on.
Revenge movies or vengeance-seeking characters, focused and driven though they are, don’t have to be as one-dimensional as KB-1 or Uma’s Woman With No Name. Off the top of my head, I can think of IRREVERSIBLE and CITY OF GOD from just this year or, going farther back to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (particularly ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — which QT references, not to his credit) or even to KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Some of these movies are made in completely different styles than KB-1, but they give you a sense of how much *else* you can get into a movie driven by a character’s desire for revenge. It needn’t be this one-note.