Katana Hot Tin Roof
It is with a mixture of pride, alarm, and indifference that I look back and realise I've been writing reviews of various kinds for well over nine years now, on and off (mostly off). I started off as a theatre critic, and the first film I wrote about was, well, The Crow, which isn't particularly relevant to this week's topic. But not very long after that I reviewed Pulp Fiction, which is. The piece itself got spiked, which is probably just as well as the last
paragraph started something like 'What's most exciting is that Quentin Tarantino is only 31 and still has decades of film-making ahead of him...' Yeah, at the rate of one film every five years.
Well, anyway, the lad is back and he's brought with him Kill Bill (Volume One), the first half of his latest project - a grindhouse epic split into two halves, solely to maintain that punchy, authentic exploitation movie feel, and in no way shape or form simply a ploy to double the box office of a massively over budget project. Those dismayed by Jackie Brown, with its tendency to focus on things like characterisation, depth, and credible plotting, will be relieved to learn that this is much more of a muchness with Tarantino's first two movies.
This is the story of an assassin known only as the Bride (played, rather laconically, by Uma Thurman). She tries to retire and get married. Her boss, Bill (a largely unseen David Carradine) is reluctant to let her go and sicks the rest of his employees on her, slaughtering the wedding party and putting ol' Bridie in a coma for several years. Eventually she wakes up and sets off to slaughter the lot of them in revenge, starting with petite Yakuza overboss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The exploits which follow are gripping, startling, funny, and in places quite extravagantly horrible.
As I mentioned, on the face of it this has a lot in common with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction - it's a retro-styled film pastiche with a higgledy-piggledy narrative structure, some
rather peculiar directorial quirks, many geeky in-jokes, a strong soundtrack, and a black sense of humour. There is also, to be sure, some very strong violence, although I personally think this is something of a departure, Tarantino hasn't actually made an action movie like this before. The director's mastery of style and soundtrack and gift for inspired casting are still very much in evidence, along with signs of a new talent for shooting and editing fight sequences (of which there are several, one lasting about twenty minutes all in all).
But where this film seems different to me, and here's where my opinion will probably become quite outspoken, is in the way that underneath all the quirks and conceits and cartoon sequences and
narrative shifts, there's virtually no substance to speak of. (Maybe all the plot and depth is in Volume Two, but even so that's not much use at the moment.) The characterisation is almost nonexistent, and the film has zero credibility when it comes to things like realism and credibility (Thurman carries a samurai sword onto a jet airliner as part of her hand-luggage, and we're also led to believe a doctor can be brutally murdered in his own hospital without anyone raising the alarm
for thirteen hours.)
Tarantino simply doesn't seem interested in credibility or, indeed, in giving his film any kind of moral grounding or framework whatsoever. This is cinema stripped of any kind of context beyond other films, with no relationship to reality. Right and wrong, good and evil, are simply not factors in Tarantino's universe. Instead he is only concerned with what is and isn't cool: and what's cool mainly seems to consist of extremely graphic violence and very sick jokes.
I read a review of Pulp Fiction back in '94 which basically accused the director of perpetrating a pornography of violence - films which were made solely to revel in the depiction of violent acts, in the same way pornographic films are made solely to depict sexual activities. I didn't think that was true then, but to me it seems like a fair description of Kill Bill. Violent films per se don't bother me at all, so long as the violence serves the story. Here the story seems to exist only to serve the gore and slaughter, and the fact the audience is clearly intended to find this funny (and often did, at the screening I went to) really disturbed me.
Tarantino's technical virtuosity, the skill of the martial arts team, and some impressive performances from Liu, Sonny Chiba, and Chiaki Kuriyama conspire to keep it extremely watchable, though, and I expect I will fork out five quid to see Volume Two (the movie's closing twist is impeccably delivered). But for me Kill Bill only demonstrates Tarantino's arrested development as a director - and, what's more, he's becoming the very thing his critics have accused
him of being all along. Brilliant, but sick.