Sunday, August 16, 2015

Movie #323: Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

I could do this with two separate entries, but it's really one movie.

Kill Bill is, as the title card proudly proclaims, the 4th film by Quentin Tarantino, and stars Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox, and Perla Haney-Jardine (along with a lot of other folks, though not Tarantino himself, for once).

The movie is based on the character of the Bride, which Tarantino and Thurman came up with together, and is apparently a take on Lady Snowblood; most of Tarantino's work is, of course, derivative as hell, it's just that his sources aren't always obvious unless you know what to look for. This is no exception. Kill Bill meanders through tropes from anime, spaghetti westerns, wuxia, 70s revenge flicks, American action flicks, and blaxploitation flicks.

Basic premise is dirt simple: The Bride (Thurman) was a member of an international assassination ring called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, which sounds like something I'd have made up when I was 13. She leaves when she finds out she's pregnant, gets engaged to a schlub in El Paso, and is about to get married when Bill (Carradine), her boss, mentor, father figure, and (creepily enough) her baby's father shows up with the rest of DVAS (Divas, get it?) and kill everyone at the wedding rehearsal. The Bride herself is put into a coma, from which she reawakens four years later, and goes on a multi-national tour of revenge. The first film covers her waking up, going to Japan to kill O-Ren Ishii (Liu) and then back to the states to kill Vernita Green (Fox), though it's told in the other order because Tarantino is totally in love with non-linear storytelling. It ends with the revelation that her daughter survived. The first film is largely action; the Bride taking on the Crazy 88s (Ishii's personal bodyguard) and killing them all, a brutal fight between her and Green, and so on.

The second film is much slower paced; we see her take on Budd (Madsen), Bill's brother and only male member of the DVAS - and she loses, which is...weird? Problematic? He puts her in a deathtrap that she has no business surviving, but it's the only time in either movie that she's unequivocally on the ass-end of an ass-kicking, except at her wedding rehearsal when Bill shoots her in the head (more on that in a minute). But Budd doesn't survive long; the final DVA, Elle Driver (Hannah, in what might be my favorite performance of either movie) kills him and then battles the Bride, and is left blind but alive. The Bride then goes on to, as the title suggests, kill Bill, and goes off with her daughter, as the title cards inform us that the "lioness has returned to her cub, and all is right in the jungle."

So, I really do like these movies. Say what you want about Tarantino and his propensity for ripping off other movies, filling them with weird, stilted dialog, his foot fetish, and his misogyny - all of that has merit. But his movies look slick as hell, and he's really good at making long movies that don't feel long. Likewise, the characters very rarely feel stock; the advantage to his dialog is that we get to know the characters in a very conversational sort of way, but at the same time, he doesn't apologize for them being terrible people.

For instance, take Budd. Budd feels bad about what they did to the Bride. He says, "we deserve to die, but then again, so does she." I really like that idea, because it gives Budd some motivation for continuing to fight even when he knows that, by rights, the Bride deserves to get her revenge. And then I kind of feel like the "burying the Bride alive" thing was unnecessary, but it set up the revelation of how the Bride was trained by a sadistic Chinese master (Gordon Liu), so there's that.

I have two major problems with the movie: Women and children.

First, women. The main character and most of the antagonists are women. The DVAS is obviously designed to be all women, except for Budd, who is included because he's Bill's little brother, but we get the sense that he's something of a fuckup (which is why it bugs me that he's the one that beats the Bride). But the whole "super-team of deadly women" thing is a trope in itself, and the women don't get nearly the character development that the men (Bill, Budd, Hatori) get. The Bride's character arc is pretty much "get pregnant, get shot, go on rampage" and while her final scenes with Bill are nice, Bill's very much in control of them. There's also some nice tension between the Bride and Green, but it's so early in the movie and we're reeling from the fight scene (which is beautifully choreographed) that it's hard to take in.

And then, children. There are three child characters in the movie. One is only shown in flashback (O-Ren Ishii as a young girl, watching her parents get slaughtered and then killing the Yakuza boss responsible by taking advantage of the fact that he's a pedophile EWW). And then we've got Green's daughter Nikki (Ambroisa Kelley) and B.B. (Haney-Jardine), the Bride's daughter. Nikki has almost no lines. She speaks briefly with her mother when she catches the two women fighting, and witnesses the Bride stab her mother in the chest, killing her, and then has to listen as the Bride awkwardly tells her, "hey, if you want to come kill me when you're grown up, OK, then." The other child, of course, is the Bride's daughter (both of these girls are supposed to be four; Haney-Jardine was seven at the time and Kelley was eight, and that's noticeable). Tarantino doesn't really know what to do with kids. He doesn't have kids, he doesn't make movies with or about kids, and he doesn't seem to know how they work. It felt like his direction to Kelley during her scenes was "stand there and don't move," and I'm not saying that having react more naturally (i.e., scream, cry, run, wet herself, whatever) would have been more enjoyable, but it would have been less weird. Likewise, hearing bizarre Tarantino dialog coming from a little girl at the end ("Were you a baaaad Daddy?") is kind of uncomfortable.

All in all, it's a good movie. It feels much shorter than its four hour run time, and the individual scenes are good, but the overall whole feels disjointed at times, and I can't help but compare it to John Wick in terms of world-building. That movie had a sense of history; we had an idea, even if we weren't told, how the world worked and how Wick got where he was. In Kill Bill, we get vignettes, but a lot of the interesting details (how does the Bride travel internationally? Where's her ID? Why did the DVAS break up?) get ignored, and that's kind of a shame.

My grade: B+
Rewatch value: Low; it's good, but long

Next up: The Babadook