What a rip-off artist this guy is–secondhand plot, secondhand characters, and secondhand themes, all tossed together with a healthy dose of gratuitous violence to please the groundlings and no regard whatsoever for narrative probability.
But enough about Shakespeare. Kill Bill isn’t exactly Henry IV, but Quentin Tarantino’s two-part epic is surely deriv-ative and exploitative–and thank God. The ravishing kung fu battle in Vol. 1 unwinds glacially without narrative function or even, really, suspense–we all know how this is going to turn out, after all. Its raison d’etre is the choreography and the beauty of the shots. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee tried to give martial arts films a soul. Fuck that, says Tarantino–his version is all cold surface, blank stare as tribute. Empty? Why, yes. But, as it happens, it’s also truer to the source material and a more thoughtful take on the depersonalized attraction of violence.
Kill Bill Vol. 1, like martial arts movies generally, is a mechanized ballet. Even the out-of-sequence narrative feels, at this point in Tarantino’s career, more like reflex than innovation. Kill Bill Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a study in frustrated expectations. When Budd (Michael Madsen), the ex-assassin working as a bouncer in a titty bar, gets chewed out by his thoroughly despicable boss, we expect him to go ballistic and trash the place–but instead he just hangs his head and lumbers off to unclog the toilet. The martial arts guru played by Gordon Liu dies from eating poisoned fish heads. Our heroine, the deadly sword-wielding assassin of Vol. 1, keeps winding up for another awesome display of virtuosity and then getting shot, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style–the first time with rock salt, the second with a dart full of truth serum that forces her to confess absolutely nothing of consequence. David Denby in the New Yorker speaks for many critics when he complains that the “dorky” scenes “don’t work,” but surely they’re not supposed to. This isn’t homage–it’s parody. The action-movie cliches–revenge, honor, violence, the Sergio Leone extreme close-up–all end up looking silly or even boring.
Discussions of Tarantino’s work usually reduce him to an obsessive movie fan. His films are an excuse to show off what he knows, the argument goes; at his best he merely reproduces the stylistic tics of his heroes. So for Denby, when Gordon Liu comes off as “a prancing little snit” it’s a mistake–martial arts masters should be treated with respect, right?
But in fact Tarantino’s refusal to fulfill genre expectations is the reason to watch him. He doesn’t want to make a Hong Kong action movie or a blaxploitation flick; he wants to have a conversation about one. And that’s what his movies seem like: long, dramatic arguments with other filmmakers and other films. For me the most enjoyable part of Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s treatment of Robert De Niro, whose inept, henpecked bad dude took the piss out of decades of macho posturing–this guy, Tarantino seems to say, is just another honky who wants to be tough. Likewise, in Pulp Fiction the thugs so celebrated by Scorsese and Coppola are presented as sitcom buffoons.
The movies Tarantino draws on are, as a rule, obsessed with the visceral–sex, blood, suspense, shock. Tarantino is interested in these things too, but in a detached way, as if they were on display in a museum. He doesn’t want to create excitement–he wants to take it apart and see what makes it tick. The famous torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, set to a feel-good 70s sound track, was disturbing not because it was gritty and immediate but because it wasn’t: Tarantino seemed to be watching you with his head cocked, clipboard in hand, asking, “And how did you feel about that?” In Kill Bill Vol. 2 another assassin, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), sics a black mamba on her former associate Budd, then reads him pertinent facts about the snake as he lies paralyzed. That’s Tarantino all over: you can bet that if he were dying in horrible agony, he’d still want to know how many milliliters of venom had entered his bloodstream.
Every so often, though, Tarantino does attempt to generate the kind of catharsis that he usually makes it his business to mock. The results are not pretty–a vivisectionist may be good at taking animals apart but he isn’t the guy you go to if you want to know what’s wrong with your pet. Of all his movies, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is the one in which Tarantino most consistently attempts earnestness, and as a result it’s his weakest effort. The character of the Bride (Uma Thurman) is a case in point. She’s clearly patterned on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name–a blond, ectomorphic, impassive killer. Fun could certainly be had with this character, and Tarantino indisputably hits some of the right notes. After digging herself out of her own grave, for instance, covered in dirt and looking like death, the Bride walks into a nearby diner and quietly asks the startled counter attendant for a glass of water.
Upon being buried alive, however, the Bride totally loses her composure, weeping hysterically. This would be great if Tarantino had cast Eastwood in the role. But Thurman is a woman, and seeing a woman fall apart in an action movie doesn’t tweak convention. Of course she pulls herself together and es-capes in an enjoyably preposterous sequence, but what’s the point of her out-burst? To increase suspense? To make us identify with her? To make her more believable? Tarantino can be brilliant when he pushes ideas to their limits or when he undercuts them. But here he’s doing neither. Thurman’s breakdown doesn’t comment on Sergio Leone–at best, it replicates the “realism” of Bruce Willis’s average-Joe action hero in Die Hard.
Tarantino’s misguided desire to give Thurman’s character three dimensions is underlined by how she’s identified as the story progresses. In the first part, she’s known only as the Bride (because she’s left for dead in her wedding dress) and by her assassin handle, Black Mamba. In the second, we learn that her name is Beatrix Kiddo, but in the film’s last scene, an intertitle informs us that she is now also known as Mommy. Motherhood is, in fact, the central theme of Kill Bill. It’s also one of the thorniest topics in our culture, and by the end of the second part of the movie, it’s clear that Tarantino, in confronting it, has suffered a catastrophic failure of nerve.
Things start out all right. Many pulp movies revolve around brutality committed against or witnessed by children–Once Upon a Time in the West, for example, or more recently Batman–and likewise the Bride is motivated by the presumed death of her child, who’s still in the womb when Bill and his other proteges take her down. But Tarantino, true to form, pulls the conceit apart: children aren’t just victims or perpetrators of violence; they’re excuses for it, plot devices. In an elaborate animated sequence a young girl watches the graphic murder of her parents and ends up covered in her mother’s blood; this is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), whose horrifying experience inspires her to become a ruthless assassin and, eventually, crime lord of Tokyo. The Bride tracks down ex-assassin Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) at the latter’s suburban home, but the chop-socky match she instigates as soon as Vernita opens the door is interrupted by the arrival of Vernita’s four-year old daughter, Nikki (Ambrosia Kelley). When it becomes clear that the Bride is reluctant to kill her in front of her child, Vernita tries to milk it, suggesting that, for the sake of the kid, the Bride should abandon her mission. But the Bride won’t let Vernita off the hook just for “getting knocked up.” In the end, after she kills Vernita, she apologizes woodenly to Nikki: “When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.” If that sounds like blatant path-clearing for a sequel, it might be–before Vol. 2 came out, Tarantino was running his mouth off about a third film starring a vengeful Nikki. But more than that, the scene’s about how childhood trauma is used to generate narrative in the movies.
In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Tarantino merely notes that children have aggressive impulses–a much less daring thesis. His portrayal of Beatrix’s four-year-old daughter, B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine), who turns out to have survived, is studiously uncontroversial. Bill has raised her as a normal, upper-middle-class suburban kid who enjoys playing with toy guns and confesses to killing her pet goldfish. When she asks to watch Shogun Assassin before bed, it seems more like a joke for the critics than character development. No, B.B.’s only real function is to humanize her mother. After reuniting with the child, Beatrix kills Bill, ends her crusade, and begins a new life as a loving mom–inaugurated by another crying jag.
Tarantino isn’t usually considered a cautious director. But in his scenes about motherhood he is pulling his punches, and the strain eviscerates his writing. In the scene where Beatrix discovers she’s pregnant, a female assassin bursts into her hotel room just as she’s reading the pee test. As they point their guns at each other, Beatrix pleads with her opponent to spare her for the sake of her child–and this time it works. Staring through the shotgun hole she’s blasted in the door as she backs away, the assassin says, “Congratulations,” a punch line predictable enough for a Charlie’s Angels sequel.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is better than that, of course, but if he doesn’t take care Tarantino could make something significantly worse. Vol. 2’s more maudlin moments reminded me of Jim Jarmusch, who instead of puncturing genre conventions inflates them with pretentious philosophizing and waits for the critics to call it art. It would be a shame if Tarantino went any further down this road. Talented satirists are few and far between, but film schools are full of white boys eager to tell the rest of us what it means to be human.