Writer-director Quentin Tarantino combines babes and steel with bloody
revenge in a stylistic brew of methodical madness to make it elemental. This
is "High Noon" in samurai garb; chop socky with some character-basis for
drama; skill of action choreography on a very high level. But, is it art?
Does it, as half a movie, work? Will it make heaps of money?
Whatever you want to call it, the Tarantino taste is hugely cinematic,
bringing saga proportions to a mission of death, virtuosic imagery to the
palette of imagination and keen athleticism to the sheer beauty of its
cast. He does bring out the best in his actors even as they absorb
themselves into the demands of his world, one invented out of Italian
westerns and American gangsters in Japanese yakuza and Hong Kong kung fu
The story is simple: Bill (barely seen David Carradine) shoots his pregnant
lover known as "The Bride", code named "Black Mamba" (Uma Thurman) as she
appeals to his mercy by saying, "It's your baby...". The shot causes her to
lapse into a coma which she awakens from 4 years later, revives her atrophied
body with mystical will power and sets out to revenge herself as only the
best martial arts killer can do. Bill will be the ultimate prize.
Rarely has so much action beef turned so slender a story skeleton so
deliciously glamorous. Once we're on a Tarantino tear no detail is too small
for cinematic magnification and explosiveness.
Since each of her intended victims are members of Bill's Yakuza clan, the
notorious "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad", they are superbly skilled and
edged with homicidal madness. The Bride's task will not be accomplished with
anything but the most wizardly swordplay.
The story is told out of sequence. Once she's shot and the titles are out of
the way, we go to Pasadena, CA where she visits a modest frame house. When
the door is opened, she's face to face with Copperhead, aka Vernita Green, a
beautiful member of the deadly quintet now gone suburban with an adorable
4-year old girl. The ensuing battle is choreographic and destructive,
fairly balanced in skill and deadliness, but halts in mid slice when the
little girl returns home from school.
After a little palaver about when and where to meet for the final encounter,
Copperhead tries to end the threat by shooting Black Mamba, but misses.
There's no second chance. The Black finishes her quarry with a two edged
knife. Returning to her car, we see her cross Copperhead off a list that
already shows O-Ren Ishii, aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu) crossed off. So now,
we need a jump back to find out how that encounter went down.
The Cottonmouth clash is a major set piece akin to Neo vs. 100 Smiths
in "The Matrix Reloaded",
but before that occurs we find her in Okinawa getting outfitted with a new
weapon from legendary swordmaker Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), perhaps drawing
another inspiration from "The Matrix's" keymaker, the mystery
How all this gets to be so long that it has been chopped into two parts (or
aptly named "volumes") by Tarantino in commercial collusion with the
distributor, Miramax, is by making each step toward Copperhead's journey of
revenge a mini-movie, in rich detail, leaving no action stone unturned or
story udder unmilked. It's enough to attenuate one's attention span but,
from the mind of so stunningly theatrical a moviemaker as Tarantino, action
fans will be locked in its head grip.
We've seen this story outline before, not only in "The Matrix" and its kin,
but in any number of westerns that make clear distinctions between the
betrayed good and the unscrupulous bad. If Tarantino looks to predecessors
and contemporaries as mentors, the list is likely to include Sergio Leone,
Kurosawa, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and John Ford, to suggest a few. As a
translator of their fictional elements to modern dress and cinema's current
state of art burnishments, Tarantino strikes a powerful chord for
theatricality. His films are an escapist's refuge, and this is one of
His effectiveness stems also from his taste for visual emphasis. The
cinematography, costume design and makeup all play into the Tarantino
pallette of larger-than-life heroics, and are as fully realized as the action
dynamics. The dialogue, while less talkative, is all the more powerful for
being spare and unforced when the physical movement is registering as the
story telling force.
This is a choice that pays off handsomely for the cast and, most especially,
for Uma Thurman. She's a force to contend with, combining steely
determination and uncompromised tenacity. Great looks with a tongue-in-cheek
earnestness makes it a smashing performance in more ways than one. We don't
get inside the heads of some of the other martial arts leads (not much in
Thurman's either, but her drive tells us enough) and this vacancy is most
telling in the major character of Liu's Cottonmouth. Frankly the buildup to
her superhuman killing skills are a bit on the anemic side compared against
what Black Mamba has been through in order to have the honor of clashing
swords with her. Too aloof; too smug.
The blood spurting from severed limbs and heads is an unnecessary device that
doesn't seem to belong to this picture ("Gladiator", perhaps?). The music is mostly from the
'70s, deriving some chuckles and support from material chosen out of pop
songs and film scores. The epic length of the piece is an unnatural stretch
for the story. The presumption behind doing it in two parts should kill
the bill, but it probably won't.
In a Tarantino movie, it seems, it's not the inner depths of the characters,
it's not the peaks of exaggerated violence, it's not the seductive beauty of
the women and colorful depravity of the men. It's the movie as a cinematic
totality and as an homage to the best of the genre, comprised of every
enveloping aspect of the medium to keep our heart rate up and our eyes
fastened to the screen. It's also juiced-up cinema for an action-loving,
adventure-appreciating audience -- one to which I belong.
See Volume 2
~~ Jules Brenner