In Quentin Tarantino's deeply insane Kill Bill, Vol. 1, I liked the moment when the nervous Japanese waiter dressed like Charlie Brown is ordered out of the room by the cool mob queen played by Lucy Liu. You laugh when he simply appears, bald in a yellow robe with a jagged black Charlie Brown sash around his waist, a terrifically odd Tarantino-ish pop curveball in the middle of so much bloody warfare. I liked that I laughed in this movie, and that it felt thrillingly illicit to be laughing at so many playful, left-field moments mingling with one of the most violent American films ever made. There's an assassin who wears a schoolgirl uniform and a bored expression and swings a mace. Her name is Go Go Yubari.
When she is confronted, her opponent, played by Uma Thurman, wearing a yellow Bruce Lee one-piece jumper, sizes this waifish warrior up, and asks, “Go Go, right?”
Go Go replies, “Bingo.”
Uma plays Black Mamba, former member of the cheekily named Deadly Assassination Viper Squad (DiVAS), now out for revenge against the remaining members who slaughtered her wedding party and left her for dead. She makes a list the way you shop for groceries and begins her vengeance, fighting up stream, video-game style, to the last boss, O-Ren Ishii (Liu). O-Ren surrounds herself with mobsters in tiny black Kato masks. These are the Delta 88s. Samurai sword in hand, Uma grabs a female member and slices off the woman's arm.
O-Ren turns to the waiter.
“Charlie Brown, beat it.”
I liked that, too. Belly laughs are welcome here. Because you feel only three things in Kill Bill: laugher and winces and the visceral rush of great filmmaking - albeit great filmmaking willfully cutting itself off from real emotion and hunkering down in the self-protective posture of a hipster. As much a Frankenstein monster of influences as this is, patched together from Tarantino's adolescent enthusiasms, the closest comparison is not to other films with actual human beings, like, say, B-movie martial arts spectaculars, but Japanese anime, with its cool-to-the-touch animated surfaces and streamlined violence. And if you don't make that connection, Tarantino even has the audacity - and this I loved - to stop the film for seven minutes and deliver one character's entire backstory as a self-contained anime short.
A decade removed from the fireworks of Pulp Fiction, followed by the tenderness of Jackie Brown, his underrated last film, the word on Kill Bill is easy to predict: Kill Bill is a step back into arrested development; Kill Bill is violent beyond belief but fun. Both are dead on; and my guess it'll seem too decadent to be taken seriously. The only thing Uma Thurman doesn't behead or kill is Bill (David Carradine). He'll get his in late February when Vol. 2 opens. But in the meantime, there's no real way around this: the hotly anticipated first movie in six years from the spontaneous, motor-mouth Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema - the man who sent shock waves though pop culture with Pulp Fiction (1994) - is excess of staggering proportions.
Miramax gave Tarantino, the 1990s' most popular indie hermit, enough rope and he shot a movie too long, too nuts. But it wouldn't be a Tarantino movie if it wasn't too much. I would have preferred sitting through one long shock to the system; instead, Tarantino and studio honcho Harvey Weinstein chopped it in two - then they even managed to eke out an R rating, also known as the rating given the gentle hush of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.
I would pay serious money to read the minutes of that Ratings Board meeting. Blood does not flow here. It erupts - in cartoonish geysers. Heads are lopped off and cranberry-colored viscera splatters the camera lens. But Tarantino never fails to deliver a stab of violence without complementing it with a laugh-out-loud gag or a pinging bit of dialogue. The effect is to continually place you off-center, exhilarated but unsettled - it's his signature move and it carries the entire film. The rest beats you senseless, even as it kick-starts your heart, knocking you about with dazzling cinematography and a palpable forward momentum.
After an awkward start, laced with some terrific pump-you-up music, Kill Bill becomes an avalanche of anticipation for a climatic big fight just around the corner. Tarantino is paying homage to the chop-socky cinema, spaghetti westerns, and revenge-ploitation of his movie-obsessed youth - he's a cultural DJ, sampling and creating art often more profound than the source material. But this time it's without irony, which means he's made a great action film, the highlight reel that's played in his head since he famously worked at a video store.
That's not to be taken lightly. Tarantino is so in love with movies he wants to show it in every frame, throwing caution to the wind, pounding out a string of happy discordant notes. That's good. But it's not a movie love in the hope of connecting with an audience; it's movie love of a bullying, movie critic sort: Here, watch this, don't argue. We start with a knife fight comically interrupted when one of the participant's daughter comes home from school. Cut to a murder. The daughter witnesses it, and stands shocked and silent, because to bring words into this scene would force Tarantino to bring humanity into the picture, and he's not interested in humanity here - which you could argue is just as well in a violent live-action cartoon.
The problem is, like any binge, you wake up empty inside, wondering what the point was. I haven't a good answer; this is one to see a couple of times. But I loved it even as I grew agitated with it - which may, in fact, be the definition of a great picture. I walked out both thrilled and feeling nothing. I'm not sure what that means. But as far as self-indulgence goes, Kill Bill gives it a good name. The final all-against-one battle (better than anything The Matrix has come up with) is largely in black-and-white, to wash out the blood-splattered reds.
Then a light flicks off, the camera readjusts, and the fight continues in lovely silhouette against a dark blue backdrop. In moments like that Kill Bill itself seems to be puffing to keep with Tarantino's imagination. Watching is to feel as if you are moving through brilliant rooms, starting with an El Paso roadhouse, ending in a Japanese garden, with snow falling around, each door revealing something more extraordinary than the last.