Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
by Steve Habrat
After disappearing from movies for six long years, Quentin Tarantino finally returned in 2003 to the cinema scene with one of his wildest films yet. Enter Kill Bill: Volume 1, a globetrotting epic that blends together blood-drenched kung fu, anime, squinty spaghetti westerns, sleazy revenge flicks, and, you guessed it, more pop culture references than you can shake a Hattori Hanzo sword at. After his rather docile blaxploitation feature Jackie Brown, it was great to see Tarantino embrace a whirlwind of crazy again but Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a film that turns many viewers off, especially if they are not in on what Tarantino is trying to do. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is another love letter to the exploitation films Tarantino marveled at as a kid, but the film is also a nod to the influence Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had on the creation of the spaghetti western. Kill Bill: Volume 1 stands as more of a vibrant kung fu movie than a spaghetti western (the spaghetti western is alive and well in Kill Bill: Volume 2) and it puts a lot more emphasis on artery spurting action sequences than in-depth story. Despite all of its energy, Tarantino still slips in some knockout emotion, especially near the end when we begin to learn more about Uma Thurman’s mysterious and bloodthirsty Bride. Until then, Tarantino keeps you glued to the candy-colored action and boy, those action scenes are exhilarating.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 introduces us to the Bride (Played by Uma Thurman), who was a valued member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (Played by David Carradine). It turns out that the Bride grew tired of working as a hitwoman and decided to distance herself from the group and find love. On the Bride’s wedding day, her old coworkers burst into the El Paso wedding chapel, gun down her friends, family, and fiancé, and then proceeded to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the savage beating, Bill proceeds to shoot her in the head despite a last gasp plea that she is pregnant. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad assumed they killed the Bride but instead, they put her in a coma for four long years. After snapping out of the coma, the Bride makes a list of all who were involved with the massacre, tracks down Japanese sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Played by Sonny Chiba) in the hopes that he will create a new weapon for her to unleash her fury, and then sets her sights on former colleagues O-Ren Ishii (Played by Lucy Lui), who is now head of the Tokyo Yakuza and controls her own personal army called the Crazy 88, and Vernita Green (Played by Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife with an array of weapons stored around her home. Nothing will stand in the Bride’s way and she will not stop until every last one lies dead in the dirt.
Not nearly as chatty as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 puts the pedal to the metal and jumps right into the bone-snapping action. The film opens with a thunderous confrontation between Vernita Green and the Bride. Sure, there are a few moments where the characters trade clever lines of dialogue but Tarantino seems more hell-bent on spilling as much blood and guts as he possibly can in just under two hours. At the time of its release, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was certainly Tarantino’s biggest and most polished film yet. When compared to his first three features, it is clear to see he had a lot more money to work with (the budget was $30 million). With that much dough in his hand, Tarantino dares to get flashy, especially at the climax of the film. The last portion of the film jumps to Tokyo in a swanky restaurant/bar/nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride confronts O-Ren and her Crazy 88. This showdown finds the Bride hacking and slashing her way through a seemingly endless army of hotshot gangsters in Kato masks as blood gushes like geysers from their wounds. It is hilariously extreme to the point where Tarantino had to scrub away the color and present it in black and white so the film would nab an R rating (it has also been said that Tarantino did this to pay tribute to the television airings of classic kung fu films, which would switch to black and white to mask some of the gore). It is the shining moment of Kill Bill: Volume 1, complete with the Bride dressed in a yellow motorcycle suit that pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film The Game of Death.
Then we have Thurman, who plays the Bride with such ferocity that you would think that this was the last role she will ever play. I love the way that Tarantino drenches her in mystery, even censoring her name in a wicked tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It is great the way he provides little morsels of information to tease and hook us for the big reveals of her character that will come in Volume 2. Yet Thurman remains one tough and scowling cookie, more so in this installment over the second, where he really fills her emotions in. She’s the ultimate hardass who never seems to break a sweat even as she is surrounded by hissing bodyguards. As the Bride bops around in her Pussy Wagon (a bright yellow pick up truck she steals from a perverted orderly), she encounters Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver, a one-eyed femme fatale who is clearly a nod to Christina Lindberg’s character in Thriller: A Cruel Picture. We basically get a sample of her vile character but she is certainly an evil piece of work. There is also Fox’s Vernita Green, a smooth-talking lioness who gets into a living room brawl with the Bride. Fox is basically given an extended cameo, as Tarantino seems more interested in Lui’s O-Ren, the ruthless head of the Yakuza. He spills O-Ren’s back-story in a shockingly violent anime sequence that will captivate even those who don’t have much interest in anime. There is also Sonny Chiba’s wise and scene stealing Hattori Hanzo, Chiaki Kuriyama’s pint sized ball-and-chain assassin Gogo Yubari, and Carradine’s heard and only briefly seen Bill.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is ultimately a mash up of everything Tarantino loves. It is loaded with toe tapping songs from a wide-ranging collection of artists. He opens the film with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” droning over a silhouette of the Bride and has her flying off to Tokyo as the Green Hornet theme trumpets her arrival. He makes reference to countless grindhouse and exploitation films, mostly ultra-violent kung fu that he is always raving about in interviews. In addition to being a massive sampler, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is also Tarantino’s most cartoonish film. It is almost like witnessing a comic book suddenly springing to life, which is why I think some people tend not to really care for it. Overall, if you’re open to what Tarantino is trying to do here, you will be left wiping the drool off your chin when the credits role. Not one moment of the film ceases being cool and you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with glee at some points. If you’re new to Tarantino’s work, this is probably not the best place for you to start but for those who love his work, you’ll be thrilled to find him in full form again. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman & Robin (1997)
by Steve Habrat
If Batfans were worried about what direction the Batman films were going in after 1995’s half-campy Batman Forever, our worst fears were confirmed with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 atrocity Batman & Robin. For this Batfan, I remained in denial about the movie for several weeks after I saw it, refusing to admit that it was downright awful. As the days passed, I began to face the truth and accept that Batman had been turned into a two-hour toy commercial that had little respect for the character I had grown up with. Schumacher had done what absolutely no one wanted to see and that was return to the silliness of the 1960s. Even more family friendly than Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was relentlessly juvenile, with Looney Tunes sound effects, the dynamic duo playing hockey with the “hockey team from Hell”, and Mr. Freeze delivering some seriously appalling one-liners that made any proud Batfan want to smash their head into a wall then curl up and die. Oh, and they totally ruined Bane! As a result of Batman & Robin, I actually gave up Batman and quit collecting the comics and toys for years after. I was so embarrassed by it and even today when I revisit the film, it is a real chore to get through. For two hours, Warner Bros. and Schumacher crush your spirits and spit in your face with lines like “You’re not gonna send me to the coolah!”
Batman & Robin begins with Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) summoning Batman (Played by George Clooney) and Robin (Played by Chris O’Donnell) to Gotham City to stop the sinister Mr. Freeze (Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a cache of diamonds. Mr. Freeze narrowly escapes the masked vigilantes and returns to his hideout where he is trying to save the life of his beloved wife who is suffering from MacGregor’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in South America, botanist Dr. Pamela Isely (Played by Uma Thurman) is working under the mad Dr. Jason Woodrue (Played by John Glover) who is experimenting with a serum called “Venom”, which transforms runts into super soldiers. He experiments on a scrawny criminal and in the process, turns him into the hulking killing machine Bane (Played by Jeep Swenson). Dr. Isely witness the experiment and when she refuses to join Dr. Woodrue, he brutally murders her with an assortment of different toxins that she was working on. Isely is reborn as the sexy seductress Poison Ivy, who joins forces with Bane and heads to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne about cutting the funding of her project in South America. Once she arrives, she bumps into Mr. Freeze and together, they form an alliance that will have Batman and Robin scrambling to find all the help they can get.
In interviews about the film, Schumacher explains that Warner Bros. really pressured him to keep things light for the children, even more than they did on Batman Forever. They also ushered in toy companies to have a strong input in the design of gadgets and vehicles and it is completely obvious. It was an attempt to make things more “toyetic”. There are countless gadgets strewn throughout the film, most of them serving no purpose at all. Then there is the Batmobile, which looks like a supped-up sports car that will be used for street racing rather than battling crime. I’m stunned that Schumacher didn’t throw text on the screen that read “For sale at your local Wal-Mart!” just so everyone knew it was available. The film has a paper thin plotline that barely makes any sense at all, the whole grand scheme here is that Mr. Freeze wants to freeze the city. The annoying aesthetic that Schumacher applied in Batman Forever is also punched up to one hundred as the film constantly looks like it was filmed in various glow-in-the-dark nightclubs as techno pumps into the fight scenes. While all of this is bad, nothing can compare to the performances that Schumacher captures.
Stepping in for Val Kilmer is the hunky George Clooney, who is so uncomfortable in the role that he is practically looking into the camera and saying it to us. His Bruce Wayne is a grinning and sunny philanthropist who refuses to brood or be at odds with his duty of protecting Gotham City. He is more of a wisecracking dad to Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who belts out cringe inducing dialogue at every turn. A scene where Batman and Robin glide through the sky on makeshift surfboards has Robin yelling “Cowabunga!” as he surfs over the rooftops of Gotham. There is a disposable side plot that finds Robin growing tired with all of Batman’s rules, which consistently keep him alive and he doesn’t even realize it. He whines and moans that Bruce doesn’t trust him but it never leads to anything substantial. Schumacher also can’t resist lacing the moments between Bruce and Dick with a homoerotic feel that once again is completely out of place. Things really get weird when they begin bickering over Poison Ivy, who introduces herself at a charity ball that has the dynamic duo arguing over who will take her home. The scene culminates in Batman whipping out an American Express card and warning Robin to “never leave the Batcave without it”. I don’t know about you, but I would think it would be odd that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be at his own charity ball but Batman is there bidding millions of dollars to take Ivy home. Maybe it is just me, but I think doing something like that would give yourself away instantly.
Then we have the villains, who once again steal most of the movie away from the title characters. Schwarzenegger is a lumbering chunk of blue cheese as he delivers some of the films worst lines of dialogue. Every line written for the man is a one liner that references freezing something. He crashes a party and shouts “Everyone chill!” as the guests shriek in terror. Then there is the femme fatale Poison Ivy, who is equally cheeky when she delivers lines like “Curses!” as she is foiled by Batgirl. She spends a good majority of the movie trying to seduce men and kiss them, which is the only thing deadly about her. Then we have Swenson’s Bane, a mindless brute with greenish skin that grunts, groans, and moans as Freeze and Ivy give him commands. For a villain that was extremely deadly in the comic books, it is such a disappointment when Robin and Batgirl swoop in and defeat this hulk. Alicia Silverstone shows up as Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece who likes to play sweet and innocent but has a knack for getting in with the wrong people. She ultimately becomes Batgirl but there is no build up to this. She just suddenly becomes part of the team and Batman never once questions her sudden appearance. Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred and even he seems to be phoning it in here. He gets a side story that reveals his character is hiding an illness that may take his life. This is the most interesting part of Batman & Robin but it certainly doesn’t better the movie. Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon who is present only to grab a few laughs and then disappear.
By the time Mr. Freeze has converted a giant telescope into a freeze machine that will blanket Gotham City in a thick layer of ice, you will have completely checked out of Batman & Robin. Poison Ivy basically serves no purpose in the movie other than to drag the film out a little bit. Batman and Robin are unable to beat her even though she is powerless yet Batgirl swings in with one kick and Ivy is no more. Our heroes also have time to do a quick wardrobe change in the final act of the film, emerging onto the slick streets of ice town wearing futuristic armor that looks ridiculous. It doesn’t aid the trio in battling Mr. Freeze and seems like it is only here to look cool. And DON’T get me started on the nipples that are once again present on the Batsuit! Overall, it is hard to believe that Batman & Robin is operating in the same universe that Tim Burton created in 1989. An obnoxious mess of a film that is completely unwatchable from the get-go, Batman & Robin is not only the worst Batman film ever made, but is also one of the worst superhero films to ever grace the silver screen. A complete embarrassment on every single level, both for fans and the filmmakers.
Batman & Robin is available on Blu-ray and DVD.