Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kill Bill, vols. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)

by Jimmy "California Trouser Snake" Callaway

For a four hour exploration of revenge, Kill Bill doesn't really have a whole hell of a lot of time dedicated to revenge. And that's cool. But like one of its many forebears did for me a couple months back--Master of the Flying Guillotine--Kill Bill doesn't give me a whole lot to work with as far as that goes. It's got a lot of pretty action sequences and a lot of pretty scenery chewing. But that's about it, really.

So. If we can't tell from the title or the opening scene, the Bride is out to kill Bill, her former lover and boss, for trying to kill her and, it is guessed, succeeding in killing her unborn child. The flick starts off just right with a fight scene with Vivica A. Fox, who is woefully underused, not only here, but also anywhere that is not my creepy imagination. As Vernita Green, one of the Bride's former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (their office Christmas parties are legendary), Fox exchanges kicks and punches with the Bride before her daughter comes home. The theme of motherhood plays a large part in the flick, so again, good thing to bring it up right away. The Bride doesn't want to kill Green in front of her daughter, but that's about where her mercy ends. Green tries to convince her that she's truly sorry for shooting up the Bride's wedding party and all that. Now, naturally, an apology is not going to cover that sort of thing. But it does seem to me that Green is sincere in this, and it bothers me just a little that it doesn't bother the Bride at all. Of course, she's early into her journey, so it only makes sense that she's not gonna listen to reason here. It just doesn't jibe exactly with her claim that she is being totally rational. That was what I used to tell myself when I saw malice in every set of headlights in my rear-view mirror (but I'm feeling much better now).

It could also be that I'm sore because Vivica Fox gets killed right away and then no more of her fine ass for the rest of the movie, really. I do like how Nikki, Green's daughter, is handily set up for a revenge flick of her own years down the road. So what I'm seeing right away here as far as the revenge theme is that some attention is being paid to it, but not enough to really make me think there's gonna be much more to this flick(s) than fight scenes (hurrah!) and painful dialogue (hurroo.).

Next, I mean first, I mean next on the Bride's revenge list is O-Ren Ishii. There's a huge chunk of anime time in here depicting O-Ren's backstory, much huger than the Bride's even. Revenge comes up a lot here too, what with O-Ren avenging the murders of her parents. The weird thing is that it seems like we should sympathize with her character more than anything after all this. If that's the point, then that's kinda weird 'cause she's a bad guy. But if that's not the point, then it's just a buncha highly stylized prurience. Which is fine, but I dunno. Maybe I'm just expecting too much again. And really, as long as Lucy Liu's freckles are yelling at me, what do I have to complain about?

The bulk of the rest of vol. 1 is devoted to the Bride slaughtering every dude in Tokyo, but not so much direct payback. There is a little sub-plot thrown in with O-Ren's lawyer, Sofie Fatale, which seems more of a name for a killer or at least a really vampy broad. Y'know, like a Spirit villain. Not so much a lawyer. Also, her part in the Bride's wedding day massacre seems a little tacked on, but as we're constantly reminded through the movie, the less seriously you take this shit, the more fun you'll have. Which is true. I just have a thing about being told what to do.

Vol. 2 is more or less dedicated to the rest of the Deadly Viper Over-Accessorized Squad and their impending deaths. It's around this point that something else occurs to me to suck the fun out of the movie: why should I feel sorry for the Bride? Because she was nearly murdered as was her child (who wasn't actually murdered as it turns out. So, sorry about that, legions of dead people)? Fuckin' live by the sword, die by the sword, lady. I suppose this is why we never actually see any of the action the Bride saw as a paid assassin. In kind of a counterpoint to O-Ren's backstory, we might find ourselves not sympathizing with our heroine, and that wouldn't do.

Again, I suppose I have to bear the brunt of the blame for this, being smart and all. It's like in Land of the Dead: the lead zombie is really the hero of the story, so we never see him actually eat anybody. And it's like, fine, you want us to sympathize. But he's a fucking zombie. I guess what I'm getting at as regards Kill Bill is that this oversimplified notion of good guys and bad guys sticks out a bit here more than anywhere else. I'll buy that a squad of assassins all need snake codenames they never seem to use, I'll buy that Michael Parks is a Mexican pimp, I'll even buy that an airline would let Uma Thurman bring her Hanzo sword as carry-on. What I'm not buying is that she's a sympathetic character, and the copious absence of the horrible shit she must have done in the past ("the deadliest woman in the world" is not a title you earn helping the homeless) just points that up all the more for me. And what's more is I don't need the lines of demarcation drawn so clearly. You can have a flawed protagonist, you can have a sympathetic antagonist. You just have to be careful with what you're doing, that's all.


Budd is by far the most interesting character in this flick, if only because he doesn't keep calling everybody "bitch." Near the beginning of vol. 2, we find Buddy working at a titty bar, well below his station. This is a nice P.S. for his character, I think. Vernita got out of the life and attempted a normal suburban existence. O-Ren used her skills and abilities to climb to the top of the Japanese underworld. Budd can't even hold a job as a bouncer at a low-rent strip joint, a joint where even Sid Haig can keep a bartending gig. But like the others, Budd seems more or less fine with things. Budd's got a much more philosophical angle on the whole thing: "That woman deserves her revenge," he tells Bill, "and we deserve to die. But then again, so does she. So I guess we'll just see, won't we?" I double-dare you to find anybody other than Michael Madsen who can make awkward and clunky dialogue like that sound good. But that's besides the point: the real point here is that Budd knows the score. And even though he buries the Bride in the lonely grave of Paula Schultz out of some misplaced notion of loyalty to his asshole brother Bill, he doesn't seem to enjoy it much. No, I take that back: he seems to enjoy it as much as he enjoys Johnny Cash records and getting yelled at by his boss. That is to say, Budd takes everything in stride (which also nicely fits my preconceived notions of what Madsen is really like). Grant you, perhaps he loses his cool when a black mamba eats his face, but I think that's understandable.

Elle Driver, as depicted by Daryl Hannah, is the wildest card in this bunch of wild cards, which makes the fact that she doesn't actually get killed all the weirder. In fact, what seems to drive the Bride more in this case is that Elle killed their mutual master, Pai Mei. Again, I get the nod to kung fu here, but it's just this sort of screwball notion of fealty-until-death that keeps me from being a full-bore kung fu junkie. Like, the Bride doesn't have enough hatred for Elle as part of the crew that killed everybody she loved? We've gotta throw a hard-ass kung fu master into the bargain (one who couldn't tell his fishheads were poisoned until it was too late)? I dunno. Frankly, I really like Daryl Hannah in this movie, and not just because I kinda like having that Twisted Nerve whistle stuck in my head at work. So I should be glad that she'll be around for vol. 3 (if she lives that long)(hell, if I live that long). But not only does it not jibe with the point of the movie for me--all Deadly Vipers must die!--that dumb question mark during the end credits bothers me. Aesthetically, mostly.

And now the main event. Which also brings up problems for me of sympathizing with the characters. First of all, Bill's Superman speech really rings my bell, and not just from a comic-book critic's standpoint. It also really sells his motivation behind trying to kill the Bride and taking their as-yet-unborn child away. Perhaps if we had seen more of the Bride pre-wedding massacre, it would have been an even more apt description of her as a killing machine. But as we saw already, that would take precious emotional involvement away from the heroine. And we just couldn't do without that, right?

But really, what makes the whole movie really difficult to me, and I don't think I'm gonna run into too much argument here, is that David Carradine is just a charming motherfucker. There is not a single time in this movie that I don't wanna hang out with the guy, not a one. I wouldn't get rid of that aspect of his character myself, but shit, it makes it real hard to counterpoint our heroine--she of the golden locks and deep blue eyes--if our bad guy is not equally repulsive. And he's not! Jesus, his favorite song is "When Will I See You Again," for chrissakes. How could you kill that guy?

So that's where I'm at with this movie. The revenge angle is a pretty weak set-up, thereby hewing to the tradition, I would suppose. Of course, there are a million reasons to like this movie in spite of all this, even if it's still one of Tarantino's lesser efforts. Like a lot of exploitation movies, plot is merely a conduit to wonderfully choreographed scenes of violence and gore. And like a lot of exploitation movies, Kill Bill never falls short of this mark. But like a lot of exploitation movies, it leaves me wanting a little more in the plot department.

My fault, entirely.