“Dead woman walking.”

Let’s start off by giving us a heroine who is dying, thanks to an inoperable brain tumour. Way to bring me down, Juncture: what do you think this is? DamesWithDiseases.com? The Hallmark channel is tha…oh, hang on. She’s following a child-porn purchaser back to his house, and guns him down? Hmmm. This is clearly not your everyday Illness of the Week flick. For Anna Carter (Blackport) has decided to go out with a bang: several of them, in fact. Realising she only has a short time to live, she decides to extend her day-job as the co-ordinator for a charitable foundation, and correct the failings of a justice system: neglectful mothers, drunk drivers, selfish CEOs, they’re all likely to meet impeccably-dressed vengeance.

While not exactly action-packed – it’s more about the philosophy of violence than the actual execution – and for the most part, thoroughly depressing, it’s a very intriguing and largely successful work. It’s main strength is Blackport, perfectly cast for the role, at first looking like a china doll, emotionless and placid. It’s only gradually that we see the seething mess of contrasting (and largely conflicting) emotions that are inside, since her decision is not something that has come out of thin air. There are some spotty bits of plotting here, noticed by Chris with her laser-guided Script Deficiency Spotter 3000TM. For example, why go after someone buying kiddie-porn, when you could go after someone making it? Some of the other choices of targets seem a little odd, and Anna also makes little effort to cover her tracks: even if she’s dying, she would still presumably want to continue her mission for as long as possible.

Still, there’s a great deal to admire here, with every penny being squeezed out of the budget. Particular kudos to cinematographer Richard Lerner and composer Neal Acree, whose efforts enhance proceedings significantly – the results look to be the product of a significantly-higher budget, than the rumoured million dollars. It leaves you questioning what you would do in the same situation: follow Queen Latifah off on a Last Holiday, or head for the dark side, as Anna does here, with a mission for what you perceive as the ‘greater good’? Certainly more thought-provoking than usual, it’s intended as the first part on a trilogy, though stands fairly well on its own, I would be very interested to see how things proceed from here, as Anna heads towards closure, both personal and medical.

[The film was released on August 12 by MTI Home Video. It comes in widescreen, with a director’s commentary and behind-the-scenes footage. More information can be found at MTI’s website, and the film’s official site.]

Dir: James Seale
Star: Kristine Blackport, Jeff Nicholson, Diana Dresser, Andrew Porter

Ms. 45


“Dark Angel.”

Abel Ferrara is one of the most interesting of American film-makers, with an uncompromising vision that has seen him almost entirely shut out of mainstream cinema: the closest he’s come to a Hollywood movie was his Invasion of the Body-Snatchers remake, which was a failure on just about every level. Instead, he’s been on the outside, looking in, with films that range from the brilliant to the near-unwatchable. You never know what you’re going to get. It can be something raw and amazing, like Bad Lieutenant, or it can be a garbled, self-indulgent mess, such as his attempt to adapt William Gibson’s New Rose Hotel.

Ms. 45 falls firmly into the first category, held together by an amazing, luminescent performance from the then 17-year old Zoe Tamerlis [a.k.a. Zoe Lund], whose character Thana is entirely mute – except for one word, whispered in the final scene. She works in a garment factory, run by sleazy owner Albert (Sinkys): one day, she is raped on the way home. Worse follows, as when she stumbles in to her apartment, another intruder is there, and violates her again. However, with the aid of a convenient domestic appliance, she kills him – and now possesses his gun, with which she can take on, single-handed, the men she now perceives as threats.

As Thana’s mental state disintegrates, however, her action gradually shift away from justified. While the viewer initially sympathizes with her, and cheers her on, it slowly becomes apparent that she has become entirely unhinged, paranoid and delusional. She goes from reaction to pro-action, dressing up and going out with the specific intent of luring men in and killing them. In many ways, Thana ends up worse than those who triggered her rage, spiralling down into what are basically random acts of violence: Tamerlis had, allegedly, been a victim of rape the previous year by a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and did not report it. As Ferrara put it, “Women are brought up in a male dominated society. You’re being raped every day, one way or another. That is the metaphor of the film.”

Hmm. While I can acknowledge the political subtext in Thana’s muteness [especially since it appears largely to be psychological, going by the last scene], I’m not quite sure how seriously I take this claim overall, given Ferrara actually plays one of the rapists, and a large percentage of the time is spent objectifying and fetishizing his lead actress, to the extent where Chris felt she looked like a supporting actress in a Robert Palmer video. Perhaps the most memorably instance of this is Thana, dressing up as a nun – but one that also wears stocking and suspenders – before heading out to a Halloween party. With her blood-red lipstick, she kisses each of the bullets before loading them into her gun, a sequence which tells us much about Ferrara’s repressed Catholicism [also apparently rampant in Lieutenant, where both Ferrara and Lund worked on the script], as well as paying homage to the other great New York street-sweeper, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

Certainly, Tamerlis’s reading of the film is rather different. [Spoiler alert] “No, Ms. 45 is not about women’s liberation, any more than it is about mutes’ liberation, or garment workers’ liberation, or your liberation, or my own. Notice that her climactic victim is not a rapist in the clinical sense. He is her boss. The real rapist. Our real rapist… Ms. 45 presents a humble, yet well-crafted metaphor for rebellion of the any-sexed oppressed. But the gun was put in a woman’s hand. A woman carried that universal message, and so it was all the more powerful. It made us shiver. Male and female. Different timbres and temperatures of shiver, but shiver all round.”

Running counter to that, or perhaps lending it an additional depth, is that the one who stops Thana, in effect betraying her, is one of her own. It’s a woman and a fellow garment worker, her former friend Laurie (Stuto), who stabs her in the back, literally – a metaphor that I’m certain was not accidental, any more than the phallic positioning of the knife at Laurie’s crotch. [End spoilers] The subtext there seems to be that the oppressed can not be trusted to stick together in their battle against the oppressor, even though Laurie is a strong-enough personality in her own way. She certainly has no problem responding in kind to the barrage of verbal harrassment she and Thana suffer as they walk home from work. Our heroine, meanwhile, has ‘victim’ written all over her in the early stages of the film, though the strength she eventually finds and displays, is clearly in a radically different and anti-social direction.

There are certainly holes in the plot logic. Where is Thana getting all the bullets from, and why is she such a crack-shot, despite presumably having never having handled a gun before? Yet these are in step with the pitch-black tongue-in-cheek humour the film contains: witness the long, rambling monologue inflicted on Thana by a guy she meets in a bar [her muteness making her the ultimate good listener]. I laughed like a drain at the sequence where Thana tries to get her landlady’s dog run over in traffic, as its nosiness concerning the severed body-parts round her appartment poses a threat. And when disposing of said parts, there’s surely nothing that you want to hear less, than for someone to shout after you, “Hey, lady! You dropped your bag!”

Chris, who lived in the Big Apple during the early-80’s, can also attest to the attitudes and dialogue as being authentic Noo Yawk, and the film does an excellent job of portraying the city as a predatory jungle, with a threat lurking behind every corner, especially for someone as attractive as Thana. Of course, “threat” is relative, and by the end, our heroine is the biggest threat – albeit only to those with a Y-chromosome, and the question of whether they deserve it or not is, to some degree, debatable. Still, in the words of the great philosophers, Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Ronny Biggs, “No-one is innocent.” Particularly in these days of movies produced by bean-counters, it’s refreshing to see a film that eschews a black-and-white approach in favor of an arc that takes us with a character as they journey into somewhere very dark and unpleasant, without needing to resolve things in a manner best described as, “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

[The pics and quotes here largely come from zoelund.com, a tribute site apparently run by Zoe’s ex-husband.]

Random notes

  • Tamerlis used to show up to some screenings of the film [above, outside the Nuart theater in Los Angeles] and discuss the social and political implications of the movie afterwards with the audience.
  • Which must have been interesting, as even the grindhouse theaters that were the movie’s natural home found it difficult viewing. In Cult Movies 2, Danny Peary says of the film, “Never has a 42nd Street theater been so quiet and disciplined as when Thana went through her rounds and murdered every offensive male who crossed her path… Unexpectedly, the men who had whooped all through Amin and the obscenely gory previews of Dr. Butcher, whimpered worrisomely “Oh, my God” and slumped in their seats and shut up.”
  • It’s still unavailable in the United Kingdom except in a version where the rape scenes are cut by one minute, 42 seconds. Even the 2000 US DVD was re-edited: the cuts include changes to the first rape featuring Ferrara’s cameo, which is split by an insert shot from a later scene, the second rape omits a line “This oughta make you talk, huh?” and the climatic shoot-out removes an on-screen murder, which now occurs off-screen.
  • The film inspired a song by L7, with the same title: “She’s got a gun, just make her day: don’t fuck with her, she’ll blow you away. She walks the streets at night and they think she is a whore. She’s gotta deal with you – she’s gonna even out the score.” The less well-known Dandi Wind also wrote a song called Ms. 45: “Today I bought a gun, Now I’m dressed just like a nun.”
  • “According to Tamerlis, her performance in Angel of Vengeance provoked a sniper attack on her in New York, wounding her.” — 1983 Virgin Film Yearbook
  • While Tamerlis experienced some success as a screenwriter and actress [Larry Cohen’s Special Effects is certainly worth checking out], she was a long-time drug user first of heroin and then cocaine. This contributed to her death of heart failure in Paris, in 1999.

Dir: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Zoe Tamerlis, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Helen McGara
a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance

Rise: Blood Hunter


“Sadly disappointing and largely toothless.”

The main obstacle to this even reaching average is probably a first-half structure that is, for no readily apparent season, entirely fractured. Scenes appear entirely out of order, with no explanation: why is our heroine now waking up in a morgue? And the problem is, what the film has to offer is so pedestrian, you can’t be bothered to start putting the pieces together. Liu plays Sadie Blake, a journalist investigating the shady underground side of goth culture, who ends up finding a clan of vampires are on top of the food chain, just before becoming one of their victims. However, instead of taking her undeath lying down, she vows revenge and, accompanied by a rogue cop (Chiklis, you’ll not be surprised to learn), begins working her way up said food-chain.

Despite the combination of two potentially incendiary grindhouse themes, in vampires and revenge, the gore and nudity feel more reigned back than they should be. And the vampires here, under leader D’Arcy, are a bunch of wimps whom certain slayers would have disposed of between commercial breaks, with a merry quip. Sadly, Blake is no Buffy, despite her crossbow, and even the action sequences appear to be choreographed by a sloth. It’s aiming to be post-modern in its approach to vampirism; they have few special powers, and I don’t think anyone actually used the V-word. However, part of the reason the monster has survived so long is because of the alluring facets of the mythos, and the film doesn’t come with anything as interesting, to replace what it excised.

The prurient will likely be drawn in by the prospect of Lucy Liu getting her kit off, and they’ll likely enjoy the sequence where she’s hung upside-down, topless. You’ll also get Marilyn Manson and Mr. Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, formerly of 98 Degrees: I leave it up to the reader to decide whether these cameos are a discouragement or incentive to watch. The “unrated, undead” DVD includes about 25 minutes excised from the theatrical version, which also ran a good bit more chronologically – for once, I’m left longing for the rated version, since what we have here is an overlong mess.

Dir: Sebastian Gutierrez
Star: Lucy Liu, Michael Chiklis, James D’Arcy, Carla Gugino

Hard Candy


“More threatening than girls with guns: teenage girls with scalpels. Gentlemen: cross your legs.”

This is almost unbearably creepy, in two different directions: however, it’s almost impossible to discuss this film in any meaningful way without spoilers, so you have been warned. The danger of online predators is well-known, and when fourteen-year old Hayley (Page) agrees to meet photographer Jeff (Wilson), who is in his thirties, alarm bells are ringing. They reach a piercing level after she goes to his house, starts drinking vodka and flirting outrageously. However, the tables are abruptly turned: she’s spiked Jeff’s drink, and he wakes to find himself tied-up, and entirely at Hayley’s mercy. He soon finds out that’s a quality she is very definitely not inclined to provide.

So, who do we sympathize with? The paedophile? Or the psychopath? Pick your poison, and it’s the kind of bravely ambivalent film I love, for Jeff is far from the usual cliched portrayal of a child-molester: rather than a sleazy old man in a dirty mac, he’s charming, well-spoken and educated. Which makes him far more dangerous, of course. Though he meets his match in Hayley, and it’s a brilliant performance by Page. We have absolutely no idea whether any of what she says is true, regarding herself (is she 14, or is that part of her act?), her family or even the apparently-damning evidence she finds of Jeff’s paedophile tendencies. The last is perhaps an error on the film’s part, since it’s at its best when we’re less certain as to whether Jeff deserves the horrible fate Hayley has in store.

Oh, yes: horrible. Armed only with a medical textbook, a bag of ice and some sharp objects, she prepares to make sure that Jeff will not bother any other little girls again. Cue the film’s second, and most critical, mis-step, as it pulls a punch which would have made this an instant evil classic – you sense Takashi Miike, whose Audition this most closely resembles, might not have backed off. From here, the film does stray into implausible territory, with Jeff spurning several chances to escape, or overpower Hayley [who looks about 95 pounds]. However, that doesn’t really diminish from a film that has the guts to ask a lot of questions which seem to have easy answers, and then confront us with a reality that makes things more complex than we’d wish.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson

Lady Vengeance


“Revenge is a bitch…”

This film may need two viewings. First time up, I was irritated by an apparent lack of coherence – which was particularly annoying, since the non-linear storyline seemed almost completely superfluous. Second time round, it bothered me less though remained, perhaps deliberately, disorienting, and I still doubt the need for it. But the re-view left me better able to appreciate the great central idea, a chilling meditation on justice, revenge, the thin line between the two, and the effects on those who become involved. The final part of Park’s loose trilogy (after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) is the story of “kind-hearted Geum-ja” (Lee), who spends 13 years in prison, for the heinous murder of a young child. Except, she isn’t guilty, and spends the time forging alliances which will help with her new goal: revenge on the real perpetrator (Choi).

The pace is stately, rather than adrenalin-driven, yet there’s no denying its place here. Much credit to Lee for a great performance in a complex character, capable of huge sacrifice in her quest for redemption: she cuts off a finger in front of the victim’s parents, and has to be physically restrained from removing more. Yet it seems that her charity and good deeds, such as donating a kidney to a fellow prisoner, may be part of her vengeance. And then, when her goal is within grasp…she steps back to allow others, perhaps better-motivated, to take her place. Or is the opportunity that she offers a poisoned chalice? The questions asked have no easy answers; neither proponents of capital punishment, nor those opposed to it, will find it comfortable viewing. By the end, there are no victims left; everyone is guilty – to use the old Sex Pistols line, no-one is innocent.

he DVD was released by Tartan Video USA on September 26th, and includes an interview with Park, a ‘making of’ documentary, and no less than three commentaries. Nice job! For more information, visit the Tartan Video USA site.
a.k.a. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Dir: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Si-Hu, Nam Il-Woo

La Guerrera Vengadora 2


“Schoolmistress by day…crawls through impressively large air-ducts by night.”

Chagoyan is perhaps the nearest thing Mexico has to offer to an action heroine. She best known for her role in Lola la Trailera (‘Lola the Trucker’), in which, she played the daughter of a haulier – she takes over his business and goes out for vengeance, after he’s gunned down for refusing to assist a drug-cartel. Almost a decade later, that director’s son would helm this, in which Chagoyan plays a teacher who moonlights as a crime-fighting vigilante. Not having seen part one isn’t much of a problem; presumably it explains her origins, and perhaps how she gets to spend so much time away from her job. All we see here is one class, before she and her midget sidekick take on a gang who kill one of her pupils (with a surprising amount of blood, it has to be said). Then, when she’s blamed for kidnapping the daughter of the police chief, she has to find the real culprits and clear her name.

This swings wildly from surprisingly decent to laughable, as far as action goes. The explosions and stuntwork are credible. However, to call Chagoyan “unconvincing” is putting it mildly, not least the opening sequence where she rides into a hostage situation on her motorbike and saves the day – see Heroic Trio for how it should be done. But there are occasional moments (the crossbow bolt through the hand) that made us sit up and take notice, tiding us over the dumb comedic interludes. [Though any film with a flour-covered midget will always find a special place in our hearts.] There’s a lengthy finale in an underground labyrinth, pitting our heroine and her explosive-tipped crossbow bolts against evil minions with flamethrowers, before coming back above ground to answer the age-old question, which is better: a helicopter or a rocket-launcher? If that has ever kept you up nights, this is the film for you.

Dir: Raul Fernandez Jr.
Star: Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, Rolando Fernandez, Edna Bolkan, Jorge Vargas

Thriller: A Cruel Picture


“Lives entirely up to its Swedish title: Thriller: en grym film.”

Right from the first scene, depicting the molestation of a young girl, this is remarkably unrelenting stuff. 15 years later, the heroine (Lindberg), turned mute by her ordeal is kidnapped, turned into a junkie and forced in prostitution. Oh, and had an eye destroyed by her pimp (Hopf) – in loving, close-up, slow-motion that is rumoured to have involved a real corpse – after clawing the face of her first client.

Finally, it becomes too much, and she starts – with striking methodicalness – to prepare her revenge. She learns shooting, martial-arts and driving skills, and loads up with a sawn-off shotgun, as well as a handgun hidden in her hair, and goes around blowing away everyone she deems unworthy [Though how does she know where to find them? I imagine it’s not as if they hand out their home addresses…], before challenging her pimp to a duel in the bleak yet beautiful Swedish countryside.

The impact on Kill Bill, both in storyline and style (Elle Driver, in particular), is obvious – not to mention Ms. 45 – but Vibenius has a far less frenetic approach. Indeed, his style is so deliberate, you may be forgiven for dozing off, even during the fight scene, which uses such slo-mo as to become almost surreal. It’s a refreshing antidote to the MTV-style editing beloved by the likes of Alias. Less successful is the hard-core sex; while it certainly has an impact, it’s a double-edged sword, and is hardly necessary. Lindberg, clad in a long trenchcoat and colour-coordinated eye-patch is grand, and this is certainly unique. Fun? No. It’s hardly even entertaining, and must have freaked out the drive-in crowd during its mid-70’s run. But memorable? Sure. And ripe for a remake starring Christina Ricci? Hell, yes.

Dir: Bo A. Vibenius
Star: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye + Hooker’s Revenge

Queen’s High


“Nothing like Kill Bill at all – no, really! :-)”

It’s surprising no-one has mentioned the similarity this 1991 pic has to Kill Bill, especially given QT’s liking, both for lifting plots and Hong Kong movies. Here, Cynthia Khan plays Kwanny, the daughter in a gangster family whose wedding day is interrupted by the treacherous slaughter of her intended (and a good few others). Thus explodes a spiral of revenge and betrayal, in which she gets plenty of chance to use her martial arts and gun skills. Of course, there are differences – she is unaware of her enemy within – but the overlap is striking. No doubt Tarantino will claim not to have heard of it – any more than he’d seen City on Fire, before making Reservoir Dogs

On its own merits, Queen’s High stands up nicely, after a sluggish start. You might be wondering how to keep track of a parade of characters, but don’t worry, they won’t last long. The wedding-day slaughter on its own gets it our seal of approval, a masterpiece of slo-mo squibbing that’s in my personal top ten of action heroine sequences, and brings a new meaning to “until death do us part”. It also lets Cynthia Khan, who has her share of acting talent, transform from happy daughter to avenging angel, as during In the Line of Duty 3. The action side finally bursts into life in the final reel, Kwanny taking on a whole warehouse of bad guys, and discovering who ordered the massacre. The film certainly has weaknesses, but such strengths easily make up for them.

Dir: Chris Lee Kin Sang
Star: Cynthia Khan, Simon Yam, Newton Lai, Shum Wai

Kill Bill, Volume 2


“And she’s not Kiddo-ing…”

Let’s be blunt: Kill Bill would probably have been a better movie, if the Weinsteins had told Tarantino, “No: you can not cut this into two – you’re going to have to edit it down like every other director.” The second section of the film is notably less strong than the first, its 135 minutes containing too much stuff which a better, less self-indulgent moviemaker would realise was superfluous and chop out.

Precisely what, I’ll get to in a minute. But I also have to say that when this film works, it does so extremely well, with moments – and a good number of more lengthy sequences – that are just about perfect. We learn why Elle Driver (Hannah) has only one eye; the relationship between Budd (Madsen) and Bill (Carradine); the reason the Bride quit her life as an international jet-setting killer; and how the Crazy 88’s didn’t actually have 88 members. All these elements are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, plugged in like jigsaw pieces in their correct place, so it’s not as if Tarantino can’t do the right thing.

The film is at its best in the middle, from when Beatrix Kiddo (Thurmann – her character’s name is revealed, making the bleeping-out in the first part seem like nothing more than a childish prank at the audience’s expense) takes a shotgun blast to the chest from Budd, on through a flashback to a training sequence with a kung-fu master (the wonderful Gordon Liu), Beatrix’s ‘resurrection’ and up to and including a brawl with Elle that is probably the most brutal woman-woman combat ever filmed by Hollywood.

But this is not the action-fest of part one; and more’s the pity, I would say. In fact, the Bride only actually kills one person in this film [since we go in expecting her to dispose of Budd, Elle and Bill, this should whet your appetite more than it counts as a spoiler] Save her fight with Elle, there is nothing that comes within a mile of the House of Blue Leaves battle which ended the first movie. This renders the two together as possessing an uneven tone, since that massacre is the climax of the combined stories told in Kill Bill 1+2, on just about every level of cinema. Tarantino would have been better off getting his spaghetti Western influences out there before the kung-fu ones.

Tarantino’s lust for rubbing chunks of pop culture in our face rears its ugly head early on, with Bill playing a flute, just as Carradine did in his Kung Fu days. It’s a pointless anachronism, which doesn’t fit the character, and is topped only at the end when Bill rambles on, pontificating about the symbolism of Superman and how it relates to Beatrix. I can see the lines spewing forth from Quentin’s smug mouth, or even Kevin Smith’s; coming out of Bill’s, they seem absurdly forced and artificial.

But when Tarantino just nods to other movies, rather than waving them in the air and shouting “Look at me! Amn’t I clever?”, it works – sometimes sublimely. Beatrix professes her love to Bill, saying she’d ride a motorcycle onto a speeding train for him, likely a reference to Michelle Yeoh’s amazing stunt in Supercop. It succeeds, because it’s such an effective image, you don’t need to know the details; if you do, it merely lends them extra resonance. Similarly, at the end, when Beatrix and her daughter are re-united, the latter wants to watch Shogun Assassin; her father demurs…because it’s “too long”. [If you don’t get that joke, Shogun was one of the most arterial movies ever released…up until KB 1, anyway]

Unfortunately, Tarantino then subjects us to lengthy footage of mom and little girl watching the film, another pointless indulgence. But generally, it’s when characters open their mouths that the film hits trouble; there’s hardly two lines of dialogue which could not be, and probably should have been, compacted into one. Whole scenes cry for removal, such as Budd’s day job, which tells us nothing about him that his habit of drinking from jars doesn’t say, more efficiently and cinematically. And if I wanted to learn the precise volume of Black Mamba venom injected per bite, I’d tune to the Discovery Channel.

The deluxe box set, with both movies and a host of extra footage is, undoubtedly inevitable, which is why I haven’t bothered with the initial release of Volume 1, and nor will I bother with Volume 2. When it arrives, I will be sorely tempted to take everything and produce a proper edit, running two hours or less, which will have everything we need and none of the dreck. Instead, for the moment, you have one extremely good film and one pretty good film. Under normal circumstances, I’d take that from Hollywood in a heartbeat. But when, with a little care, this could have been the finest action heroine movie of all time, I must admit to a little disappointment.

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen

Kill Bill, Volume 1


” Here Comes ‘The Bride’…”

I don’t like Quentin Tarantino. In fact, every time I see his smug little face, I have to resist the urge to hit something. I do admire his talents as a scriptwriter, but think he needs someone else to rein in the pop-culture references and other self-indulgent excesses which pepper his work. That’s why I prefer From Dusk Till Dawn, Natural Born Killers and True Romance, and find Reservoir Dogs, and especially Pulp Fiction, very over-rated. I have no interest in hearing about the meaning of Madonna songs, or knowing what they call quarter-pounders in France. And don’t even get me started on his lack of ability as an actor…

There is also the nasty question of how much of what is praiseworthy, is actually Quentin’s own work. If you’ve seen the infamous Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, which intercuts clips from Reservoir Dogs with very similar scenes from a Hong Kong movie made several years previously, City on Fire, you’ll know what I mean. I’d rather praise film-makers such as David Cronenberg, who do more than cobble together pieces “borrowed” from other people, no matter how amusingly post-modern the results may be.

 I say this, so you know I am no drooling fanboy, and am probably inclined to be more critical than most. But I have to say, the first part of Kill Bill is almost entirely satisfactory, recovering after a shaky start. When it opened with a quote from Star Trek (of questionable relevance), I feared this was a Kevin Smith movie, rather than the brutal action pic I wanted. But such tendencies were largely kept under control, perhaps because there wasn’t much dialogue in which to work smug references.

Instead, it’s the soundtrack which slides into self-indulgence. You can tell Tarantino grew up in the 70’s: he has rifled his CD collection yet again, mixing everything from the theme to The Green Hornet to spaghetti western music, with the overall effect leaden-footed and rarely more than painfully obvious. Yet there are more than enough wonderful moments to compensate for the odd bit of weakness.

Uma Thurman is The Bride – her character is never named (it’s given a couple of times, but beeped out) – a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination squad operating under the eye of Bill (David Carradine, not yet seen). When she tries to quit, her marriage is interrupted by the rest of the team, who kill the groom, the priest and even the guy playing the organ. They think they’ve killed the pregnant bride. They’re wrong.

 Four years later, she wakes up in a hospital bed, with her child not to be seen. And, boy, is The Bride pissed. She vows to kill her four former colleagues, plus Bill. Volume One covers her awakening, plus the first two-fifths of her mission: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife and mother, plus O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now head of the Tokyo underworld.

She actually goes after O-Ren first; in typically maddening Tarantino style, he screws around with the timeline, and makes that the dramatic climax. Having seen her face Green, we know she survives O-Ren and returns to the States – so much for tension in the climactic battle. Okay, we know there’s another whole movie, and this is probably a moot point. But why bother? Why not just make Green her first target? That, and his tendency to go for a snigger at the most inopportune moments, is why I couldn’t let go completely, and love this as I wanted to.

Plotwise, there are certainly questions (spoiler alert!), though a second viewing might answer these:

  • How does Vernita Green, supposedly a top-rate assassin, manage to miss shooting The Bride from five feet?
  • After years in bed, The Bride’s legs are understandably weak: yet her arms are strong enough to drag her about?
  • What are the police up to for thirteen hours, while The Bride wiggles her toes in the parking lot of the hospital, after killing two people and leaving the corpses in her room?

The Ladies of Kill Bill, Volume One
[Click pics to enlarge]

Uma Thurman
Lucy Liu
Chiaki Kuriyama
Daryl Hannah

However, there’s a beautiful, horrible animated sequence early on, depicting the early life of O-Ren, which proved so completely seductive, I gave up contemplating such trivial things as whether the plot made sense. I suddenly “got” the comic-book style the film was trying to achieve, and things like, oh, The Bride’s ability to bring a Samurai sword onto an airliner no longer bothered me. From then on, the movie became a delicious thrill-ride, albeit one of highly questionable morality – in many ways, that flashback also made O-Ren a more sympathetic figure than The Bride, who has (so far) no motivation for her career choice whatsoever. Liu also gets the best speech, after one of her underlings chooses to mention her mixed heritage. Fabulous stuff.

In contrast, The Bride is largely a machine for extracting revenge, particularly once she hits Japan, picks up a weapon from a master sword-maker (70’s icon Sonny Chiba, as namechecked in True Romance), then heads to O-Ren’s headquarters, where all hell breaks loose. Dressed in a Game of Death yellow jumpsuit, she takes out her enemy’s minions in ones, two, then tens and twenties, with so much arterial spray I suspect the switches to black-and-white and silhouette were as much to avoid censorship as a stylistic choice.

The trailers make this look as if it’s non-stop action, but it isn’t really – there are only a couple of proper set-pieces. The first (cinematically, if not chronologically for the characters) is between The Bride and Green, a brawl around the latter’s house. Despite imaginative use of kitchen utensils, the photography is all wrong, with way too many closeups, leaving it impossible to tell whether there’s any skill – or, indeed, what the hell is going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the first things Tarantino shot, since it’s the kind of mistake you’d expect from someone like him, unfamiliar with shooting martial arts.

 However, this is more than made up for with the lengthy sequence in Tokyo. In particular, the battle between The Bride and GoGo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), the Japanese schoolgirl who is mistress of a weapon that can kill you in a dozen different ways. It’s a pity that the excruciating Japanese band, The 5678’s, who are playing in the venue, don’t get taken out as collateral damage. [Ten seconds of them is at least nine too many – they make Shonen Knife sound like the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra] Regardless, much credit is due to Thurman, Kuriyama and fight co-ordinator Yuen Wo Ping for creating a fight which is simultaneously hard-hitting and original, as well as being aesthetically beautiful.

It’s difficult to give a comprehensive review to a film without an ending – indeed, we’re only half way through the story so far. But what we’ve seen so far beats up 2003’s other Hollywood action heroines, the lame Tomb Raider and Charlie’s Angels sequels, without even breaking a sweat. Roll on Volume 2 early next year, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion we’ll be heading back to see this one a few more times between now and then.

[Thanks to The Reel Truth for tickets to the advance screening of this movie.]

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox