Beheadings. Maimings. Sliced hamstrings. A lopped-off skull exposing brains. Blood spurting from severed necks and arms like Vegas’ Bellagio fountain.
Quentin Tarantino's six-year hiatus has culminated in an eruption of bloodletting called “Kill Bill — Vol. 1,” starring Uma Thurman as an assassin whose thirst for revenge runs a close second to Medea’s.
And that’s just chapter one. “Kill Bill — Vol. 2” is due in theaters next February, completing a saga that began on the “Pulp Fiction” shoot 10 years ago.
“Kill Bill” is an excess of excess that makes Tarantino’s earlier cinematic blood feuds look like pillow fights. Near the end of the film, Thurman surveys the sprawling carnage she’s wreaked in the climatic battle, a scene the “editing room called the not-since-‘Gone-With-the-Wind’-shot,” Tarantino said.
In conversation, Tarantino’s every bit the motormouth you’d expect, exhaling verbiage like a human aerosol can. A film geek who dropped out of high school, he learned his craft from a youth spent in southern California moviehouses and years working in a video store while moonlighting as a frustrated screenwriter.
The 40-year-old Tarantino counts among his talents the ability to turn the horrifying humorous and make audiences co-conspirators in his big, bloody sight gags. He relishes the idea of “making you laugh at what is not funny. I just get a perverse thrill out of it.”
“Reservoir Dogs” made Tarantino an indie darling in 1992, and he became an all-out movie messiah two years later with “Pulp Fiction,” which earned him a screenwriting Academy Award and put distributor Miramax into the big time. But the pressure’s on for “Kill Bill,” given Tarantino’s long lapse in directing and the so-so critical and commercial response to 1997’s “Jackie Brown.”
If part one of “Kill Bill” clicks, there’s a built-in audience for “Vol. 2,” meaning Miramax collects double admissions for what originally had been intended as one movie. But if “Vol. 1” bombs, Miramax is stuck with the leftovers come February.
“Kill Bill” lacks the franchise value of “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Matrix” movies, also being released in serial fashion. It does have the Tarantino brand name, satisfying years of pent-up demand for something fresh from the filmmaker who inspired endless imitations in the so-uncool-they’re-hip subgenre of crime flicks.
“Pressure’s the name of the game. The pressure for the film to succeed is on everybody making a movie nowadays. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Tarantino said. “I can’t imagine a better situation for a filmmaker than to have eager anticipation for his next movie. That’s the greatest thing in the world. I hope to keep it.”
Like a musical, “Kill Bill” takes place in a stylized arena, allowing audiences to dissociate the action from anything that could happen in the real world. For song and dance, Tarantino substitutes a mash of melodramatic locution, swordplay, stunts, characters and music echoing his cherished Hong Kong martial-arts movies, Japanese samurai flicks and Italian spaghetti Westerns.
Just as crowds laughed when John Travolta accidentally blew the head off a youth in “Pulp Fiction,” they’ll titter over much of the carnage in “Kill Bill.”
Then again, plenty of people may find it repugnant.
“His work is by nature controversial and provocative. He wouldn’t be him if he didn’t leave a few people offended, a few delighted, and a few people ecstatic,” Thurman said. “He’s trying to engage with audiences in a way that is challenging. He’s not making a movie to make people comfortable, where they can sit back and take a nap. He’s trying to give them a really visceral experience.”
No fear Known only as The Bride, Thurman’s character was part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. After getting pregnant, she breaks with the gang and leader Bill (David Carradine) to go straight. Bill and his pack of killers (Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox and Michael Madsen) then hunt her down at her wedding — slaughtering the groom and everyone else there, beating The Bride senseless and putting a bullet in her head.
She awakens from a coma five years later to learn that her unborn daughter died in the attack, then immediately sets out to hunt down her old playmates, turning the world into her own private abattoir.
The success of “Pulp Fiction” and its bad-boy protagonists has given Tarantino freedom to further blur the line between heroes and villains. The Bride is far beyond the Hollywood honorable hero, a character who provokes as much abhorrence for her pitiless fury as empathy for the wrongs she’s suffered.
“That’s what I think the problem was with movies in the ’80s. They were trying to make everything for everybody. They were living in fear of, like, offending one person,” Tarantino said.
“That’s one of the reasons I actually think my films, when they came out, seemed liberating, because the characters’ motivations, why they did what they did, how they did what they did, were not controlled by market research statistics or anything. The characters just did what they did. I don’t try to make my characters likable. You end up liking them, anyway. You end up getting into them a little. But I make it hard for you to like them.”
One movie for the price of two
Like Tarantino’s previous films, “Kill Bill” is broken into chapters and jumps back and forth in time. That structure lent itself to two-part treatment, said Lawrence Bender, Tarantino’s producing partner.
“It still feels like a complete meal,” Bender said. “It’s ‘Kill Bill,’ and Bill’s not dead after volume one, so you know it’s going to continue on. But really, you feel like you’ve had a complete movie experience.”
Hurling “Kill Bill” at audiences in one three-hour gulp could have seemed pretentious, since hefty running times usually are reserved for heavyweight drama, Bender said. The intensity of the action also could wear down audiences if they saw it all at once, he said.
The two-part approach gives audiences a double shot of Tarantino after his long drought. Dabbling in acting during the mid ’90s with such films as “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Destiny Turns on the Radio,” Tarantino all but disappeared after “Jackie Brown” except for a bit part in “Little Nicky” and a critically savaged stab at stage acting with “Wait Until Dark.”
Tarantino said he kept busy writing, first with a huge World War II script called “Inglorious Bastards,” then with “Kill Bill.”
He had written the opening sequence of “Kill Bill” after Thurman and he dreamed up the idea during a night out with the “Pulp Fiction” cast and crew, then set the script aside until Thurman brought it up at a post-Oscar party three years ago.
Unable to finish “Inglorious Bastards,” Tarantino went back to writing “Kill Bill,” emerging 18 months later with a 222-page script.
The film includes a wry acknowledgment of Tarantino’s extended hiatus. Where many directors take the credit “A film by...”, “Kill Bill’s” opening credits include the tag, “The fourth film by Quentin Tarantino.”
Unconcerned with his output, Tarantino said he was following the lead of another less-than-prolific filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, doing movies in his own time, for his own reasons.
“I really admire the way he did his career, because you know what? There’s a lot of dime-store artists out here,” Tarantino said. “But he was a real artist, and I think I am, too. I might be a bad artist as far as you’re concerned, but that’s where it’s coming from.
“There’s too many filmographies that you look at and you say, well, why did they do this one, why didn’t they do that one? And you see a drop-off in the career, the first great 10 years or 20 years, and then an inevitable decline. The next 20 years, there’s a lot of apologies there. And I never want to have that through my career. I don’t want to have any apologies.”