When Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, it seemed to me that there was only one person in the world who didn't love it. That would be a friend of mine at Bristol University, an intelligent man whose ambition was to become a director and was thoughtful and learned about cinema. He thought it was empty, a film containing nothing whatsoever. He sat in front of the screen for two hours, but he didn't see a movie.
However on the other hand, I recently read a fascinating defence from someone steeped in the same trashy genre stuff that Tarantino loves. The man's films speak to him in a way he's never got from any other filmmaker, truly understanding all these things he loves so much and turning them into something new. He says that the people who hate his movies simply don't understand and, strangely, I sort of agree even though I didn't really like Kill Bill, I'd avoided it for five years and I only ended up watching it because my boss lent me the DVDs. I'd had a ginchy feeling about it which turned out to be correct.
What I've decided about Tarantino is that personally speaking, it's easy to watch his movies in the wrong spirit. He's a huge name, one of the most famous directors in the world, but he's making trash. Look at the influences he himself cites on this film. The Shaw Brothers, samurai flicks, spaghetti westerns, 1970s exploitation... you name it, it's in here. He's paying homage to a load of cheap schlock. Suddenly I see where Grindhouse and Death Proof came from. Kill Bill is a film where not only can Uma Thurman carry her samurai sword openly on a Japanese domestic flight, but other passengers have swords too! Tarantino's original plan for the Pai Mei character had been for the actor to speak Cantonese, but for the audience to hear deliberately bad English dubbing. Julie Dreyfus doesn't die when she loses an arm and all its arteries. When Uma Thurman's having a sword fight with the Crazy 88 in the House of Blue Leaves, no one simply draws a gun. I've seen it suggested that the film's visual continuity errors are deliberate.
Nevertheless this doesn't look like the kind of film that's going to be doing that. Those films were cheap. This one's expensive, it's full of recognisable stars and it's been marketed to the hilt. A new Tarantino film is an event. It's going to get column miles in the newspapers and all the publicity the studio can get, because they think they're getting a tentpole film. Tarantino's a bankable name director, yet this film he's directed is following in traditions that today's mainstream moviegoing audience wouldn't even recognise. Admittedly we're living in the age of the big dumb blockbuster, but that's not how this is being sold. Kill Bill is boring on almost all levels, frankly, but in its defence I think it's fair to say that you're missing the point if you haven't deliberately lowered yourself to a "samurai swords, cool" level. Look at part one. Its most important character apart from Uma Thurman isn't Lucy Liu or David Carradine, but that damned Hattori Hanzo sword made by Sonny Chiba. Put aside any kind of expectations and pretend that this is something you found at 2am while channel-hopping. Don't expect it to be good. It isn't. However if you're not asking too much of it, you might just find that it's cool.
There are more specific things I don't like about it than simply the fact that it's trying to be the ultimate revenge/action film. Its most obvious problem is Uma Thurman. I don't regard her as a thinking actress. She was that special kind of awful in The Avengers that redefines your opinion of an actor's mental processes, while more impressively she also managed to be the worst thing in Schumacher's Batman & Robin
. I liked her as Poison Ivy, but as Pamela Isley? Yowzers. Kill Bill though I regard as a more significant failure for her, since those two would still have stank without her. Here though she's playing a character who should have been unforgettable. This was her chance to become one of the all-time greatest cinematic badasses, a iconic female role that could have put Ripley and Sarah Connor in the shade. This is a four-hour two-part epic and it's all Thurman's. There's nothing her character can't do. She slaughters her way across half the world... and yet she's boring. What's she like as a person? I've no idea. Did I care if she lived or died? Not for a moment. She fights, she kills and she occasionally does dialogue that's delivered pretty much the same whether or not Thurman understands the language her lines are in. That's how she comes across. She can't pronounce her colleague's name (O-Ren Ishii) despite supposedly being able to speak Japanese. She's not even sexy!
Then there's Tarantino's contribution. I love his freedom and experimentation, but it's too much. Tomoko said it was like a music promotion video. He's trying to create iconic sequences, but he throws in a dozen of them when one or two would have had more impact. His screenplay hasn't earned the moments he's trying to create. I also disliked the black-and-white sequence in the House of Blue Leaves, mostly because it looks ugly. If you look at it, it clearly hasn't been shot on black-and-white film, but instead was shot in colour that then got converted to monochrome in post-production for the sake of appeasing the MPAA's concerns about excessive gore. (The Japanese version of the film stays in colour at that point.) This seems to have produced an ugly flare effect whenever any part of the picture gets too bright, although I suppose it's possible that this again is deliberate homage to US TV showings of kung fu movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Those were shown in black-and-white for the same reason, although I don't know whether they also suffered from flaring.
On the upside, though, the film's got plenty of cool bits too. That's why we're supposed to be watching, after all. The burial, the anime (of course), the multiple sunglasses on the dashboard, the 1970s retro and the zombie homage all entertained me. Those two evil bastards at the hospital deserved everything they got and I laughed at the early scene of a fight to the death being put on hold for the children coming home from school. There are also lots of entertaining cameos, with Mexican pimp dude being funny (if incomprehensible) and the psycho girl from Battle Royale showing up briefly in part one and stealing every scene she gets. Her role was originally to be split in two, incidentally, with Tarantino aiming to cast two girls from Battle Royale. Cool film. Anyway, this girl's Chiaki Kuriyama and I've seen her being cute in other films (e.g. Exte: Hair Extensions
), but she's special when she's evil. Oh, and Julie Dreyfus reminded me of Claudia Christian.
I'd heard that the two films were completely different, with part one having no story and part two all the story. This seems exaggerated to me. They're basically two halves of the same thing, with the difference being that the non-Thurman characters in part two are more interesting and get more to do. Lucy Liu and everything she does is a bit boring and pointless in part one, which is a shame since with a brief digression at the beginning, that's pretty much part one in its entirety. Michael Madsen is playing an actual character. Daryl Hannah isn't, but she's watchable. David Carradine is fun too. Plus of course we learn all the backstory about what happened to kick off the initiating massacre, which is nice to know and hangs together. The silliest bit in part two is the scene where everyone forgets about the black mamba, but on the upside there's Samuel L. Jackson's cameo as a man who plays music in a church and claims to have been a drifter. In Pulp Fiction, he talked about God and wanted to become a drifter.
I don't really like this film, but I'll admit that it's interesting. I'd have found it more effective had Tarantino pulled it way back, but then again that's not the film he wanted to make. Technically it's fascinating, with a level of stylistic playfulness that's almost as much of a draw for me as the characters and the story. It's violent and sometimes even a bit gross, but to less effect (for me) than Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs because it's more obviously fantasy and I didn't care about Uma Thurman. If you ask me, what Tarantino needs is to work on a truly top-class script. What he writes is good enough and tailored to his purpose, but I'd love to see the results of him working on a story so strong that he had no choice but to serve it instead of the script serving him.