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Fight club: Liu (center) and posse in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

Stop, You’re Killing Me
By Shawn Stone

Kill Bill Vol. 1
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Early on in his long-awaited new film, director Quentin Tarantino taunts his critics. Coming upon a scene of mass murder, a sheriff comments on the obviously professional nature of the killing: “If you was a moron, you could almost admire it.”

Count me among the morons. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a wildly entertaining orgy of hyperkinetic violence and insanely detailed movie geekdom, celebrating martial arts B-movies, Japanese anime, Italian westerns and blaxploitation flicks. (Biker and redneck movies will be covered in Vol. 2.) You don’t need footnotes to enjoy it, either: Tarantino has an artist’s gift for stealing ideas and making them his own.

It’s also a bloody, subversively reductive celebration of action as character. If, in Jackie Brown, Tarantino fleshed out his characters until they possesed some resemblance to real people, this film is just the opposite. The assassins, perverts and killers in this universe are all superhuman, and, therefore, not human at all.

The plot is simple. The Bride (Uma Thurman) is beaten and shot (along with the entire wedding party) on her wedding day by former coworkers in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Except, of course, that the Bride isn’t dead. After four years in a coma, she wakes with revenge on her mind. This is bad news for DiVAS O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (David Carradine). With a wild arsenal of knives and swords, the Bride hunts each of them down; since this is only half the story, she has time to kill only two in Vol. 1.

Some of the fights are human-scaled, if not exactly human; most are deliriously over-the-top. Thurman, Fox and (especially) Liu are all able killers. The film’s climactic fight is a 40-minute-plus sequence in a nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, in which the Bride slices and dices an army of Yakuza gangsters. Before this, Tarantino even gives the audience a breather with a nice, calm section in which the Bride visits a legendary swordmaker, Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, in the film’s only charming performance).

Kill Bill Vol. 1 is also one of the funniest movies you’ll see this year.

You might think this statement is facetious; it’s not. Tarantino’s blood-
splattered tale of revenge is intentionally, if brutally, funny. Example: A killer tells a little girl that, first, she didn’t intend to whack her mother in front of her, and, second, if the girl still feels “raw” about this when she’s grown, she should feel free to look the killer up for payback. It isn’t presented as tragedy; the child is expressionless (no tears or screams to spoil the mood), and the killer sounds more like a kindergarten teacher than an assassin. Is it heartless? Yes, but in the manner of those brutal 1940s Looney Tunes (the kind that end with murder, suicide or both as the punchline).

There are only two things really wrong with the film. First, there’s the fact that it’s only part one. Splitting the film in two—much as the Bride slices villains from stem to stern—has the unintended consequence of giving the Bride’s story short shrift. Kill Bill may be, principally, an homage to the Hong Kong martial arts films of the ’70s, but the story structure is pure spaghetti western. As with the unnamed Third World hero played by Charles Bronson in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the Bride’s motivating tragedy is shown only in brief flashbacks. I’m willing to bet that, à la Leone, the complete wedding massacre won’t be shown until the very end of the film, just before the Bride kills Bill. In terms of dramatic impact, this makes perfect sense only if you’re watching it in one three-hour sitting.

The other problem with the film is ratings-related. The dizzying fight scene at the House of Blue Leaves is mostly in black-and-white. The purpose is to dampen the visual shock of the spraying, squirting blood and avoid an NC-17 rating. While, generally, it’s hard to be in favor of senseless gore, we really need to see those rivers of blood in living (dying?) color.

Setting these problems aside, however, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is still a prime moviegoing pleasure. Take the soundtrack, for example. Whether it’s a goofy-but-effective music cue (Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme kicks in whenever the Bride meets someone she must kill), or spine-chilling sound effect (like the whirring of a deadly mace wielded by a psychotic Japanese teen), the film is as much fun to listen to as it is to watch.

Ultimately, Kill Bill may not mean anything more than its pile of severed plastic limbs and a couple hundred gallons of fake blood; in this case, however, the means justify the ends.

All That Glitters

Intolerable Cruelty
Directed by Joel Coen

Wow, do Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney look gorgeous. For Intolerable Cruelty, a screwball romantic comedy for the new millennium, that the leading screwer-uppers be jaw-droppingly glamorous is more than an homage to those fabulously photogenic faces of the 1940s. Marilyn Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) and Miles Massey (Clooney) must be alluring enough to climb to the top of their professions—trophy wife and society divorce attorney, respectively—without opposition. Which they have, and then they meet during a divorce proceeding and face the ultimate antagonist: each other. Directed by Joel Coen with the expected off-kilter style and technical proficiency, Intolerable Cruelty is pure pleasure for its first half, and an over-the-top crowd pleaser for its second. If the film had maintained its drolly cynical sophistication to the end, it might’ve ranked with the Coen brothers’ best comedic work (Raising Arizona, Fargo). As is, it’s just high-sheen entertainment.

Perfectly set in the Hollywood Hills, the opening segment features a wickedly adrenalized Geoffrey Rush as a cuckolded husband whose litigious instincts kick in even in the midst of a crime of passion. This is a bang-whiz set-up for how greed and wounded egos can be a hilariously lethal combination, and it’s to the credit of the clever script (polished by the Coens) that Rush’s TV producer—who is left bankrupt by Miles—will reappear at the appointed hour. Meanwhile, Marilyn has caught her billionaire husband, Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) in flagrante with a floozy, and is awaiting a stratospheric settlement. But Rex retains Miles, dashing Marilyn’s hopes for financial independence. Miles is distracted all right, but wins the case with the help of some underhanded tactics. In retaliation, Marilyn turns her feminine wiles on Miles. A consummate womanizer, the overconfident Miles lets his guard down.

This viperish distillation of the battle of the sexes—women want security, men want sex—is played with the bracing effervescence of top-shelf champagne. The strategic flirtation between Marilyn and Miles crackles with snappy repartee, and sizzles with an extravagantly staged mutual attraction. At the top of their games, both achieve new successes to up the ante: Marilyn gets engaged to a naïve oil tycoon (Billy Bob Thornton), and Miles receives the personal approval of his firm’s legendary founder, a scarily ambitious and decrepit old man (Tom Aldredge) who still puts in 80 billable hours a week. The Coens’ zippy camera work, Clooney’s crack comic panache, and the enthusiasm of the supporting players (including Cedric the Entertainer as a private dick who isn’t as nimble as his Ninja self-image) add to the film’s fizzy energy. And with its glitzy settings and nasty jabs at vanity and materialism, it seems the film might be getting at something, perhaps even something perversely, insightfully Coenish.

But as the battle between the would-be lovers heats up, the conflict slides into empty farce (although an asthmatic hit man does have a moment of truly inspired slapstick), and it becomes dismayingly apparent that the inner workings of Intolerable Cruelty don’t have the same snazzy appeal as its surface. The sleekly archetypical leads are too one-dimensional to generate any real romance, and much of the subtext is mere cliché (especially Herrmann’s infantile moneybags), leading to a conclusion that’s practically a cop-out. Just like an infatuation, the film fills the audience with giddiness and then wears out its charm.

—Ann Morrow

 


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