Tarantino tantalizes, taunts

Kill Bill recomposes cinema history in tongue-in-cheek thriller.

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Director Quentin Tarantino alloys decades of pop culture in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (as in his classic, Pulp Fiction) and hones his work so sharply it can split the hairs it raises. Kill Bill is the beautiful weapon of an auteur’s vision, thrust through our adrenal glands and into the dark marrow of our funny bones.

“Bang, bang, my baby shot me down,” Nancy Sinatra croons over the sound track as the titular Bill squeezes the trigger on Uma Thurman’s gory and bullet-crucified character, the Bride.

From the start of his directorial career with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino, like director Martin Scorsese, has shown genius for juxtaposing image and music with a cinematic effect greater than its individual parts. But the bittersweet sound track just whets Kill Bill’s shocks. The film’s camera and moments-of-violence shots are an amped-up version of those seen and heard around the world in Pulp Fiction (1994).

The earth may have failed to move for Tarantino fans as he artfully dodged impossible expectations with Jackie Brown (1997). Now, Kill Bill confronts those expectations head-on in the blue-eyed, steely stare of the revenge-driven the Bride, aka the Black Mamba, a codename from the lead character’s dark days with the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS).

If Thurman and a team of deadly female operatives ring a bell in your mind, congratulations: You could be a bona fide film geek like Tarantino. In Pulp Fiction, Thurman’s Mia Wallace tells a story about her former acting career. It seems Mrs. Wallace once appeared in a TV series pilot called “Fox Force Five,” a show that trumped the three titular “angels” of “Charlie’s Angels” with five “foxes,” each having their own lethal specialty. The Foxes could have hounded the wet dreams of any red-blooded adolescent boy after digesting a visual diet heavy in ’70s TV and violent martial arts movies — the fare of the rundown, urban theaters aptly known as “grindhouses.”

Tarantino has called Kill Bill his grindhouse flick, and grind it does. It’s the director’s almost impossibly omnivorous cinematic pop culture collage, thrown into a food processor. Decades of TV shows from the ’50s to the ’70s, like “The Donna Reed Show,” “The Green Hornet” and “Ironsides,” are tossed in with “Charlie’s Angels,” grindhouse kung fu and international horror-porn, Westerns (both American and spaghetti), Abbott and Costello, Japanese pop-rock and animé, Charlie Brown, Hannibal Lecter — and pinches of cinematic LSD and methamphetamine for a white-knuckled punch.

Tarantino flips the lid off and sprays the potent stew of audiovisual references onto the screen in the form of a violently moving graphic novel. Bill’s blades spin like the Bride’s samurai sword as she mows down scores of O-Ren Ishi’s (Lucy Liu) henchmen, who dress in the black suits and ties of the Reservoir Dogs and wear Kato masks. Obviously fake showers, gushers and torrents of blood are unleashed in the process.

The story is simple: revenge. But, as in all the films Tarantino has originally scripted (he adapted Jackie Brown from pulp novelist Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch), he weaves the plot with deep psychological and mythical undertones.

Here, as in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the plot centers on betrayal and sacrifice. Reservoir Dogs ended in a massacre. Pulp Fiction is practically a Bible story in comparison, where criminals find salvation in their good deeds. In Kill Bill — at least here in Volume 1 of this two-part feature (Volume 2 is finished and scheduled for release next February) — redemption is a debt collected in gallons of blood.

But that doesn’t mean that Kill Bill isn’t bloody good fun. That is, if you like your comedy served black. Freddy’s endlessly bleeding gut and the notorious ear-severing scene of Reservoir Dogs were far more traumatic. The psychopathic shenanigans of Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers (adapted from a Tarantino story) were more disturbing. Kill Bill’s tumbling limbs and rolling heads tap into the same ultraviolent comic sensibility as moments of A Clockwork Orange, the Yakuza films of Takeshi Kitano (the Japanese Tarantino?) or Vincent accidentally blowing the hapless Marvin’s brains out in Pulp Fiction.

With Kill Bill, in more ways than one, it is evident that Tarantino is back with a vengeance.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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