2000s, Action-Adventure

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) / Vol. 2 (2004)



Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

As an aficionado of his performances in films like Boxcar Bertha (1970), Bound for Glory (1976), and The Serpent’s Egg (1978), I didn’t need Quentin Tarantino to remember for me what a great actor David Carradine could be. Yet Carradine’s peculiar life and death confirm that he was as a man much like the characters he often played—rootless, peripatetic in life and career, taciturn and emotionally ambiguous in image. His long attachment to the half-baked TV series Kung Fu, Roger Corman, and New World Studios saw him crowned king of 1970s and ’80s trash, blotting out his best achievements. In many ways, his career replicated that of his father, John, in becoming the sort of face cinema needs but rarely treasures; Ingmar Bergman cast David in The Serpent’s Egg because of Bergman’s admiration of John. Carradine himself seemed surprised that he could still rise to the occasion when Tarantino cast him as the titular rogue in his colossal diptych, Kill Bill.


I am glad that Tarantino remembered how cool Carradine could be, because his crocodilian charm is crucial to the success of Kill Bill, a work I make no apologies for considering one of the greatest of the decade. Deliriously entertaining, colourful, and altogether unique in its blackly hilarious melding of cherry-picked clichés and vital characterisation, Kill Bill is, at the very least, the sort of film no other director could pull off. Tarantino is, in many ways, the straight man’s Pedro Almodovar: a self-conscious quoter of generic traditions, fueled by the strong emotional charge inherent in disreputable cultural detritus, setting his ardour of artifice and ground-level feel for human interaction in a pas de deux as intricate as the swordplay.


Kill Bill wants, first and foremost, to be an exciting, funny, and strangely romantic action film. It’s the tale of Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), known only as “The Bride” for most of the film. She awakens from a four-year coma, and begins a determined effort to wipe out the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad—Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and Vernita Green (Viveca A. Fox), and their boss Bill—in revenge for their murder of her fiancé (Chris Nelson), friends, and her unborn infant, as well as the cap Bill put in her own crown. She quit Bill and her life as one of the Vipers (code-name Black Mamba) when she found she was pregnant with Bill’s child, and tried to settle into a normal life, but Bill tracked her down and instituted the carnage. In her bloody revenge, she takes out redneck rapists, hordes of yakuza bullyboys, a psychotic schoolgirl, and a Franco-Japanese lawyer dressed like a Star Trek villain. A major criticism leveled at the film is that the first part contains all the great set pieces, and it’s true—the House of Blue Leaves sequence is one of the mightiest set pieces in cinematic history and a notable riposte to Hollywood’s increasing inability to shoot action scenes. But it’s the second half that has the truly relishable character turns: Hannah’s imperiously sexy Elle; Madsen’s weirdly sympathetic, if irredeemably vicious, Budd; Michael Parks’ sibilant, courtly but malevolent pimp Esteban Vallejo; Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei; and, of course, Carradine’s Bill.


Tarantino’s direction, Sally Menke’s editing, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography were all at their height, and scene after scene is a treat for the eye. I once went to a dance venue where the DJs projected Vol. 2 on a screen, and the film’s purely rhythmic structuring adapted itself to any beat the DJs spun. In closer analysis, the structure of Kill Bill also reveals a vital aspect more floridly than any other of Tarantino’s films: Kill Bill revels in the dialectic between fantasy flourish and realism. The film begins with an ordinary suburban household becoming the scene of a ruthlessly violent struggle, and concludes with what is essentially a tiff between former lovers. In between comes a work that builds to the height of generic stylisation, in the epic House of Blue Leaves battle, and yet maintains an amusing contrast with everyday, tactile realism. For all their startling gifts, the characters live in most bog-ordinary of settings: trailer homes, suburban bungalows, sushi parlours, and bland hotels. Budd contends with the sarcasm of a cocaine-snorting titty-bar owner (Larry Bishop), and Tarantino notes with intimacy something as throwaway as Budd’s methods of making cocktails. Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) and his assistant (Kenji Oba) run a sushi bar and squabble like an old married couple. Such touches provide the messiness of the everyday, constantly bumping against the formalism of generic material where yakuzas duel with samurai swords because it’s more honourable.


Tarantino’s bent is not satiric, however, though it is ironic. It’s more a tacit acknowledgement how much the life-and-death dramatics of our beloved fantasies inform our perceptions of our everyday lives. The film’s musical leitmotif, Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) ,” is the story of a woman whose play-act gun battles as a child reflect an adult betrayal by her childhood sweetheart, and the film itself concludes with a duel of plastic guns and a literally broken heart. Despite the gushing blood, the film’s truest paragon of life and death is a dead goldfish. The disconnect between Bill’s voice and actions in the moment he shoots his former lover in the head, proclaiming himself at his “most masochistic,” hints at the later contradiction that asserts itself in Bill. He’s effortlessly the most charming guy around, and the most violent—the bad boy of many a woman’s fantasy and reality. Flashbacks to Bill and Beatrix in their prime reveal a young woman almost goofily in love with a wise elder; when she returns, hardened to the point of psychopathy, their interactions nonetheless confirm a still-guttering mutual love, irreducibly shaded with hate and hurt. “I knew what would happen when I shot Mommy,” Bill confesses to his and Beatrix’s daughter BB (Perla Haney-Jardine). “But I didn’t know when I shot Mommy what would happen to me.” He goes on to use the corniest trope of super-villainy, the truth serum, to extract from Beatrix the exact nature of her motives in abandoning him, in the film’s most crucial union of the fantastic and the emotionally imperative. If Rear Window (1954) is the cinema’s greatest portrait of pre-wedding anxiety, Kill Bill could be its greatest divorce drama.


The Bride’s relentless vengeance, dealt out in unremitting havoc, takes in a variety of shaded, apposite figures that evoke family roles: her sister in injury, O-Ren Ishii; Bill and Budd, mutually recriminatory brothers; Bill, both lover and father-figure of Beatrix; Bill “collects father figures” like Esteban; Elle kills the more formidable, more beneficial paternal figure for Beatrix, Pai Mei, and as her evil double, supplants her as Bill’s lover; Vernita, living the hidden, suburban, maternal life Beatrix aspired to; Go-Go (Chiaki Kuriyama), who could well be the kind of violent youth Beatrix was. It’s not hard to read, in Bill’s status as a fatherless child of the borderlands, and the revolving theme of severed and transient family, a certain level of self-analysis on Tarantino’s part, except that his way of analysing it isn’t through confessional filmmaking. So many of Tarantino’s protagonists are rootless, living out of motel rooms, lapping up television shows and shreds of culture, and threatening to bust out of their cages. Kill Bill quotes westerns, women’s melodramas, kung-fu, and samurai flicks, becoming a kind of pan-cultural epic of trash. When Bill delivers his theory of the nature of Superman in relation to a critique of humanity, it’s pretty well true of this film, too: humanity critiqued through the costumes it likes to dress its concerns in that save us from the boredom of being ourselves.


Much like a classical epic poem, Kill Bill’s story is in motion when the tale begins, and it stretches off in all directions, both in time and into other films. Tarantino has always embraced ideas of intertextuality—that common body of elements crucial both to the production of any genre and their academic study. He stretches it to the limits by having every character a player in some other story (although only one, Pai Mei, is a true stock villain, from Chinese mythology). Each journey affects another: The Bride’s vengeance is not merely self-contained, but the result of an Ouroborous-like cycle of violence, where many of the major characters are defined by the loss of someone invested with love or trust (O-Ren’s parents murdered; Beatrix’s and Bill and Budd’s families mysteriously absent; Hattori betrayed by student Bill). This flux isn’t resolved until the most vital of family connections, mother and child, is restored (BB’s name confirms the closure). Even then the story isn’t finished—Vernita’s daughter may one day come seeking her own payback.


Tarantino internalises not only the tropes of eastern genre films, but also their more notably dark sense of human conflict, and, paradoxically, their cartoonishness. Blood spurts, head and limbs roll, guts spill, small armies are butchered, and there’s enough go-for-broke grotesquery to satisfy, but Tarantino uses distancing effects—anime, black and white, ludicrous sound effects like tumbling ten-pins, and fights staged and lit like modern dance routines—to discharge most of the brutality. Kill Bill is, in many ways, as much a musical as a melodrama. One major model was the Lone Wolf and Cub series, where, likewise, a strangely touching parent-child relationship is counterbalanced by hair-raising violence, as if simultaneously acknowledging the potential cruelty of life and the power of the family unit in alleviating it. Kill Bill also notes the common elements in the disparate cultural entertainments that confirm the righteousness of heroic enterprise, the essence of honour, the immutability of family and loyalty, and the amount of joy so many people find in watching heads get cut off onscreen.


Kill Bill is also a film with a genuinely dynamic and interesting female hero. Most stabs at creating action heroines come across like fashion models jammed in cat-suits, or men in skirts, but Beatrix is detailed, emotionally and intellectually complex, and not exactly the nicest woman in the world. She’s a savage killer, and once she commits to vengeance, she pursues it without mercy, to the point where she leaves children without parents. She’s also an actual female protagonist who experiences specifically female problems—the whole narrative is spun from the fact that she abandoned her previous lifestyle to bring up her child, thus contending with a difficulty that confronts many women. The film then, through all it flights of fancy, is sustained by a critical sense of The Bride’s incensed pride and sense of loss, leading to a final scene where she weeps in gratitude and grief for everything her mission has brought her.


Bill had to be a very specific mixture of bastard and charmer, convincing enough to be the man a woman like Beatrix could both love and loathe with such finality. One of the film’s few lacks is a scene that shows Carradine cutting lose as Bill (although the DVD of Vol. 2 includes the deleted “Damoe” scene, which illustrates both how awesome, and awesomely unprincipled, he is), but Carradine communicates both a certain leathery, hardened brutality, as well as a soul-deep ache underneath his amiable, talkative, stylish exterior. He heads towards what he knows is his well-deserved end with a strange dignity: note how well Carradine plays the scenes where he quietly gets drunk enough so he knows he’ll be little threat to Beatrix.

He’s the man.