And Now...Pulp Friction

  • A Texas cop with sunbaked skin grimly appraises the wedding-chapel murder scene. Nine, 10 bodies — an entire bridal party, including the white-gowned bride — are splayed on the floor amid hundreds of spent shells. The cop detects the fatal precision of professionals in this atrocious tableau: lives dispatched cleanly, corpses draped just so. "If you was a moron," he drawls, "you could almost admire it."

    That has already been the reaction of some critics to Kill Bill Vol. 1. With geysers of blood and a death count in the dirty dozens, with torsos sliced sideways and lengthwise, with a tongue yanked to Tex Avery — cartoon length and a 20-minute battle that boasts enough mangled bodies to keep a MASH unit busy for months, Quentin Tarantino's first film in six years tests both the rating board's tolerance (somehow, the movie got an R) and the viewer's stomach. The carnage is artfully arranged, but, some will ask, isn't there too much of it? Does it have a larger meaning? Do you have to be a moral moron to admire Kill Bill?

    No, no and no. The movie — the tale of the Bride, a reformed hitwoman (steely, implacable Uma Thurman) who is left for dead by her ex-colleagues and resolves to kill them all — is really about the motion, the emotion, the very movieness of movies. Released in two parts, like many a Shaw Bros. thriller of Hong Kong's golden past, Kill Bill is an effusion of movie love by the prime nerd-curator and hip creator of cult action films. Kill Bill is his thank-you note to the Hong Kong kung-fu epics, Japan's yakuza gangster dramas and '70s Italian westerns and horror films that shaped his sensibility.

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    Jan. 17, 2004

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    By next semester, some grad student will be writing a thesis on the B-movie influences on this A+ film. Scholars will note Kill Bill's throbbing samples of music from Asian and Italian action cinema. They will itemize the guest shots by the old films' icons (Sonny Chiba, Gordon Liu) and parse the stunt direction by Hong Kong master Yuen Wo-ping. They will speculate that Ishii, the name of the gang boss played with silky gravity by Lucy Liu, is Tarantino's nod to two cult directors: Teruo Ishii, who did some prime yakuza films in the '60s and made the Joy of Torture sadomasterpieces, and Takashi Ishii, whose girl-on-a-revenge-tear Black Angel films were released as Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

    A series of interlocked, chronologically jumbled fights, Kill Bill plays like a nonstop compilation of, say, Jackie Chan's best fights (pow! wow! ow!) or NFL players' most gruesome injuries (Joe Theisman! Frank Gifford! Darryl Stingley!). Yet this is no mere homicidal homage. Tarantino may make a fool of himself on Jay Leno's couch, but he is a stylist of ferocious skill and audacity. So Kill Bill both re-creates the old films — which, after all, represent some of the purest, most cinematic ingenuity ever — and expands them into a daring new dimension.

    Daring, in part, because of the tone, at once playful and dead serious. The movie begins with the Shaw Bros. fanfare, switches to a cheesy, scratchy OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION sign, then offers "Revenge is a dish best served cold. --old Klingon proverb." (In other words, Warning to audiences: We will have fun. You will get wet.) But there's no kidding in the Bride's plan or demeanor; Thurman's laser stare could find Saddam and kill Osama. The showdowns with her main adversaries — Ishii and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox)--are no laughing matter either. These are women who respect one another's skill, treachery and dedication to a job well done. And if you want character motivation for dastardly deeds, attend to the brilliantly designed anime-style flashback of Ishii as a child, seeing her parents massacred and taking her revenge, first on the murderer, then on the world. It's a character so rich, Kill Bill could as easily have been about her.

    There's a daring, exhilarating spirit to the fights too. These are gory production numbers, immediate but also abstract — studies in what the body can achieve and endure. And because Tarantino mostly eschewed digital effects and had his performers do the stunts, you get figuratively sprayed by the sweat all that slick terpsichore generates. Even the arcs of blood have the propulsion of crimson choreography. In this sense, Kill Bill is the greatest dance film since West Side Story.

    Kill Bill Vol. 2 comes out in February, and the interlude is a good idea. After bathing in Vol. 1's balletic blood and bustle, you may need four months to catch your breath.