Posts Tagged ‘martial arts’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 1st 2003:

One of the ways in which Hollywood has been very forward-thinking in its approach to big business has been in its attitude to foreign (which, in Hollywood terms, means ‘non-English speaking’) actors and directors. For almost as long as there has been a film industry in America, the major studios have been keeping an eye out for talent that speaks a different tongue, with an eye to signing it up. Sometimes the results have been, if not creatively great, then massively lucrative – Bela Lugosi’s performances as Dracula, for example, or most of Paul Verhoeven’s American movies. Sometimes work of genuine quality has been produced – Akira Kurosawa’s last few, George Lucas sponsored movies probably qualify under this heading. But a lot of the time the result is an actor or director looking horribly uncomfortable and not really justifying the transfer fee.

Which brings us moderately neatly to Paul Hunter’s Bulletproof Monk. You have to admire a film with the cojones to go out into the world under a title like that, still more one which accompanies it with the tagline ‘A monk. A punk. A chick. In a kick-ass flick.’ I thought it sounded like the sort of parody The Fast Show used to specialise in, and after seeing it wasn’t quite sure if I’d not been right all along.

Tibet, 1943: Chow ‘Most people can’t spell my name right’ Yun-Fat plays a novice Buddhist monk just about to complete his training and become the guardian of the Magic Scroll of Ultimate Power. Chow looks a bit long in the tooth to still be a novice, but we will forgive him this because, hey, he’s Chow Yun-Fat. Chow’s receipt of this great responsibility coincides with some Nazi storm troopers attacking the monastery, led by the nasty Strucker (Karel Roden), who is intent on nabbing the Scroll for himself. Pausing only to go all Crouching Tiger on their collective asses, Chow scarpers. Sixty years later, Chow (who, we’re told, has been kept young by the Scroll) is in the US, still hunted by Strucker and his followers, and searching himself for the one who prophecy has said will succeed him as the Scroll’s protector. And who should he run into but small time crook Kar, played by Seann William ‘I can’t spell my own name right’ Scott, who has more important things on his mind – such as working down the local kung fu movie theatre and romancing the mysteriously well-deodorised street-fightin’ girly Jade (Jaime King). Will Kar get the girl? Will Strucker get the scroll? And will Chow ever get offered a sensible English-language script?

This is a movie with a rather cartoony style, which is mainly attributable to its origins as an obscure comic book. Thankfully, it doesn’t attempt to duck away from this, and the result is a film with considerable energy and charm, if not much plausibility. It’s an odd fusion of old-school kung fu with Indiana Jones-style action fantasy – pepped up by some not-quite-cutting-edge special effects.

In the last few years we’ve come to see a very odd new sub genre appear when it comes to martial arts films – namely, the kung fu movie starring people who don’t actually know kung fu. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the most famous film of this type is the fabulous Matrix. But it does mean the film is much more likely to be judged on the quality of its acting, direction, and special effects than on the action sequences themselves. Certainly, Bulletproof Monk falls down quite badly when it comes to the actual fights; they have nothing new to offer in terms of how they’re choreographed or directed.

But the film has several aces up its sleeve in the script and acting departments. Clearly aware that this is, to be generous, an incredibly silly story, scriptwriters Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have abandoned all pretence of seriousness and instead gone for a high-camp romp which treads the line between light-hearted fun and blatant self-parody with impressive skill. The staples of traditional martial arts come in for some good-natured ribbing, as do the acrobatic excesses of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But this doesn’t just function as a spoof, in many places it’s genuinely funny on its own terms. The script is well-endowed with ridiculous, larger-than-life characters, and to their credit performers such as Mako, Marcus Pirae, and Roger Yuan all turn in appropriately fruity performances. Special mention must be made of Victoria Smurfit’s performance as the evil Nina, she-wolf of the SS: with long golden hair, a cut-glass accent, some frankly dodgy screen-acting technique and wires attached to every extremity (for those tricky mid-air flips and kicks) she appears to be auditioning for the role of Lady Penelope in the forthcoming Thunderbirds flick.

I must confess to being unfamiliar with the filmographies of both Seann William Scott and Jaime King, but they do pretty well here – Scott is likeably goofy, King looks nice, and they have good chemistry with both each other and the films’ unquestioned star and saving grace – ladies and gentlemen, Mr Chow Yun-Fat.

Fans of world cinema, particularly world cinema featuring people being repeatedly shot in the head, will already no doubt be aware of what a massively charismatic performer Chow is. In an ideal world he really shouldn’t be labouring away in this sort of film – one hopes he hasn’t become trapped in the martial arts ghetto – but to his enormous credit he gives total commitment to a part he could probably play in his sleep. It would be very easy for this kind of (literally) holier than thou, fortune cookie wisdom spouting character to rapidly become a pain in the arse, but Chow gives his eponymous character depth and warmth and humour. None of the battles he fights in the film are as protracted or as painful to watch as the one he engages in with the English language throughout, but his charm and intensity are the same no matter if he’s talking or not. (That said, throughout the film he looks most comfortable when speaking Chinese or posing with a gun in both hands.)

I didn’t have high expectations for this film, and was all set to put the boot into Hollywood for once again hiring a great talent and then squandering it in a terrible, unsuitable film. Well, Bulletproof Monk isn’t a terrible film. It’s not deep, or serious, or have an urgent message about the world, but as a piece of light-hearted escapism, with at least as many laughs as there are thrills, it’s a reasonably good bet for a fun night out. If Sir Ian McKellen can play a magnetic mutant, then I suppose Chow can get away with playing a magic monk – but just as McKellen will doubtless return to the legitimate theatre, so I hope Chow Yun-Fat will also get the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his talent before too long.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 1st 2005: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s slightly rippled with a flat underside. Brain cells are strictly optional this week as we examine the latest offering from two of cinema’s premier knuckleheads, Jet Li and Luc Besson. Well, that’s probably a bit unfair, as both have been involved in making some rather good movies in the past – but then again they’ve both also been involved in some frightful yappers in their time. So, is their new film Unleashed (directed by Louis Leterrier) a triumphant fusion of Hero and Leon, or an appalling mixture of Lethal Weapon 4 and The Fifth Element?

This being a Besson-scripted movie it is of course a stylised and extremely violent thriller without, it must be said, much of a stranglehold on reality. The alternative title Danny the Dog sums up the premise rather well: Jet plays a guy called Danny who has been raised as a dog by gor-blimey Cockney gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, slumming it). Bart has trained Danny to attack on command, which he appears to have to do rather a lot in the course of Bart’s protection-racketeering lifestyle – this seems a bit contrived seeing as Bart is supposed to have been a senior crook for about thirty years, has he only just started the racket as a new thing? Anyway, eventually Bart and his other cronies get very seriously shot up by an ambitious rival low-life, leaving Danny to wander off on his own. And who should he fall in with but blind piano-tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, slumming it too) and his perky stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) – look, I’m really not making this up. Sam rehabilitates Danny, and soon it looks like only a hugely implausible reappearance by Bart and his crew can stop Danny from forging a new life and leaving the way of regular and protracted brutality behind. And you’ll never guess what happens then.

(All this supposedly takes place in Glasgow, by the way. All the Scots must be away while it’s happening as everyone in it’s either Cockney, American, Chinese, or Emma Thompson’s mum.)

It has to be said that this is a very silly thriller-cum-kung fu movie redeemed by the presence in it of two formidably talented actors. Having said that, neither Freeman nor Hoskins is especially well-served, as both their roles are rather two-dimensional. Morgan Freeman can probably get away with doing a piece of fluff like this as he’s already contributed to several impressive films this year alone, but Bob Hoskins hasn’t had a good meaty role in a high-profile movie for absolutely ages, which is a crying shame. However even here he does a terrific job of investing Bart with what humour, pathos and reality he can, and ends up probably sneaking the acting honours. Then again, this is the kind of movie where the actors are cast just to recycle their standard screen personae – so Morgan Freeman’s character is a font of undiluted wisdom and decency, Hoskins does his snarling Cockney brute from The Long Good Friday yet again, and Jet Li kicks everyone’s head in. It’s not so much a distillation of their best-known traits as a puree.

But it’s a film that sits easily in the Besson canon, as several of his better movies revolve around loners who are forced by events to rediscover their human sides – it’s the theme at the heart of Leon and The Transporter. Unleashed is this story taken one step further, arguably into the realms of the bizarre. I’m tempted to say that any film which makes a major scene out of Morgan Freeman and Jet Li going on a shopping trip to their local branch of Spar (Morgan spends his time sweet-talking the checkout girls while Jet happily drums on their melons) is worth seeing just for novelty value alone. The long and violence-free middle section is full of this sort of thing, it is incredibly and unashamedly sentimental and jars considerably with the extended fight scenes which essentially bookend the movie.

That said, there are few things in the cinema as reliably exhilarating as watching Jet Li whirl into action and the action sequences here are no exception. A daft subplot about pit fighting permits Besson and Leterrier to sneak in a set-piece ruck as good as anything in Li’s English-language movies, but all the rest are top stuff, particularly the climactic encounter between Li and Michael Lambert (which culminates in possibly the world’s first kung fu fight to the death in a toilet cubicle). The fights are what this film is ultimately all about and they don’t disappoint. The rest of it is admittedly extremely unconvincing, but Freeman and Hoskins always keep it watchable and it’s very difficult to actually dislike. Louis Leterrier does a very competent job with both the action and the dialogue scenes. He’s clearly a cut above the usual minions Besson gets in to direct his movies lately, which makes me particularly happy that his next project is not only a Jason Statham movie, but – could it be true? – an actual sequel to 2002’s The Transporter. Yes, there is a God! As for Unleashed – well, it probably won’t win many awards, but it will probably make its intended audience very happy.

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When the respected British film director Roy Ward Baker died late last year, his career received the usual reappraisal: many kind things were said, usually focussing on his classic take on the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember. I was pleased to see a few of the more perceptive commentators making reference to his work on the brilliant horror-SF movie Quatermass and the Pit. However, no-one at all made the slightest reference to his work on the unique 1974 movie The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The fact that the DVD packaging accurately describes this film as ‘…fist meets fang in Dracula’s kung fu showdown!’ may have something to do with this.

Well, it was 1974, and Hammer were yet again looking around for a new direction. This time around they hooked up with Hong Kong-based film-makers the Shaw Brothers to make a movie in which the stuff they did really well – Gothic vampire horror with lashings of fake blood – collided head-on with the Shaws’ areas of special interest: lengthy kung fu action sequences.

Alas, this was a wacky new angle too far for Christopher Lee, who point-blank refused to be involved. (Legend has it he was basically blackmailed into doing his last few Dracula movies anyway, on the grounds it would be churlish of him to put the rest of the actors and crew out of work by not participating.) And so this is the only Hammer Dracula where someone else plays the part: John Forbes-Robertson, who’s clearly been cast for his resemblance to Lee, but who rather blows it by overdoing his lipstick.

Anyway, in a striking prologue, a Chinese monk makes the strenuous journey to Transylvania. He’s there representing the vampire lords of Szechuan Province (yep, where the chickens come from). The Chinese vampires are having a tough time of it and would quite like the help of the Prince of Darkness. Initially scornful, Dracula rapidly realises his castle is actually a bit of a dump and takes up the offer of helping out this foreign enterprise (a bit like Kevin Spacey becoming creative director at the National Theatre), but not before he possesses the monk (presumably this is to cut down the amount of time that this non-Lee Dracula is on screen).

Some time later, who should pitch up at Chungking University but Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), intent on investigating Chinese vampire legends. Van Helsing runs into Hsi Ching (David Chiang), whose large family of kung fu experts hails from a village in Szechuan which has been terrorised by the seven golden vampires of the title since time immemorial.  A deal is soon struck where together they will deal with the vampire problem, as long as Cushing is excused kung fu duties, Chiang doesn’t have to say Transylvania too often, and they can find an appropriately striking blonde to provide the obligatory Hammer glamour (Julie Ege steps up as a wealthy Danish widow who finances their expedition).

I’m making the plot sound rather more complex than it actually is – most of the foregoing is back-story, handled very directly. What happens on screen is actually extraordinarily straightforward: the vampire hunters set off on their expedition (Cushing wears a pith helmet). Some gangsters try to stop them and there’s a lengthy kung fu battle. Then, they stop for the night in a cave, where the vampires attack them. There’s a lengthy kung fu battle. Finally, they arrive at the cursed village where the vampires attack them again. There’s a – oh, you guessed. The plot is totally linear (though not wholly without surprises – not everyone you may be expecting to survive to the closing credits actually does so).

The ‘village plagued by bad guys calls in expert fighters’ scenario inevitably recalls Seven Samurai and its legion of pasticheurs, but things seem to have got a bit mangled: in this movie the ‘seven’ of the title are the bad guys. Nevertheless, Cushing is backed up by seven of his own guys, though any thoughts you may be having that this is a fair fight are mistaken, as the vampires are supported by a legion of charmingly duff-looking zombies (to be fair, all the makeup in this movie is fairly lousy).

On paper this movie looks like one of the greatest pieces of junk ever committed to celluloid, an aberration committed solely in the name of market-chasing. Neither the script or the production values are up to Hammer’s usual standard, and the film doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. The graphics department don’t seem to have read the script, as a caption establishes Dracula heads for China in 1804, a century before the rest of the story happens. This in itself is enough to put the film in its own continuity, separate from the ‘classic’ Hammer Draculas (1958-1970) and the ‘contemporary’ films featuring the character (1972-3). However, the script makes it quite clear that Dracula and Van Helsing have met before, which is impossible given what we’re shown on-screen. Does it really matter, given that this is, after all, a Hammer horror-kung fu movie fusion? Probably not. Is it, nevertheless, annoying as hell? You bet.

Legend remains stubbornly watchable, mainly due to another incredible Peter Cushing performance – the man’s dedication and commitment to his craft remain truly astounding, to say nothing of his sheer ability to sell dodgy scripts to an audience – and Baker’s contribution as director. He’s not the most naturally gifted director of martial arts sequences, but then the fights in this movie are a little atypical anyway, generally featuring at least half a dozen performers on each side. Where he does deliver is in terms of atmosphere: the wordless build-up to the final conflict, as each side steels itself for battle, is genuinely rather thrilling. He’s helped by James Bernard’s strident if slightly repetitive score, even if it does recycle bits of his classic Horror of Dracula score in a rather uninspired fashion.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is what you get when a fairly silly idea gets written up as a so-so script (Don Houghton was once again responsible), which then has rather too much talent and energy and not enough money thrown at it. You can’t really imagine Christopher Lee actually doing a movie as weird as this one, because it is weird – bordering on the actually demented. But if nothing else, that gives it definite novelty value. This is ultimately quite a bad film. But it manages to be bad in a uniquely interesting and enjoyable way.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 29th 2004: 

…onto new business and the second volume of Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge melodrama Kill Bill. Attentive masochists may recall that I was less than taken with the first installment for all manner of reasons, and so I must confess to turning up for the second half with expectations that were less than stellar – to be honest, I was expecting to hate it. Well, I didn’t: but I’m not really sure how much of this is down to the quality of the film and how much is the result of my possibly figuring how Tarantino wants his film to be approached.

There’s a sense in which the plot of the Kill Bill movies is the least important element of the whole enterprise, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Uma Thurman once again plays a revenge-obsessed assassin known only as the Bride, and the film opens with her two-fifths of the way through her hit list of former colleagues (those who massacred her wedding party, for anyone who’s forgotten). Next up is redneck slimeball Budd (Michael Madsen), followed by the cyclopean Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – and, finally, Bill (David Carradine) himself…

I say that Kill Bill‘s plot is the least important element of the film – and what I mean by this is that this isn’t a conventional film one should turn up to expecting to be drawn into a consistent and believable narrative with three-dimensional characters and so on. Kill Bill isn’t consistent and it isn’t believable, and it makes no attempt to be: it changes wildly in tone and style throughout the different ‘chapters’ that comprise it, and is by turns naturalistic, operatic, OTT, fantastical, repulsive, comedic, and theatrical (actors play multiple roles). In places it is also variously slow and wordy, and also rather pretentious. The bedrock of Tarantino’s career is his ability as a pasticheur, and that gets its fullest expression here, as multiple genres are reproduced one after the other. The key to enjoying this film is not to worry about the larger narrative and just appreciate what each segment has to offer.

Of course this has its downside too: the film is so upfront about its own artificiality that when it eventually attempts to be genuinely moving and emotional, it has a much harder job to do. It can’t be so cool and ironic for most of its length and then suddenly expect the audience to care about the characters as much as it would like. That it generates any kind of emotive punch at all is mainly down to Thurman’s performance, and particularly that of Carradine (displaying a reptilian charisma throughout).

And I’m still not wild about the offhand, faintly comic tone of the violence (much of it misogynistic) that punctuates the film. Tarantino’s fan-club will probably say that it’s only a film and that there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by or even laughing at this sort of thing – which presumably means it would be perfectly okay for the great man’s next offering to be a screwball comedy about paedophilia, assuming it was sufficiently stylish and witty (and contained enough obscure references to world cinema).

Anyway, while I’m still not entirely won over I am much more cheerily disposed to the project than I was. The action choreography is particularly spiffy, and fingers crossed Daryl Hannah will get a career bump off the back of this. The same goes for Michael Madsen, who gives a remarkable performance – somehow managing to be simultaneously worthless and repellent, but also weirdly sympathetic.

In the end the Kill Bill movies aren’t much more than the cinematic equivalent of a particularly eclectic and well-put-together set of compilation mix tapes – for every bit you can’t stand there’ll be another you’ll be delighted by, always assuming music’s your thing. They are, probably inevitably, less than the sum of their parts, and it’s still up for debate as to whether Tarantino’s decision to essentially invent his own new style of cinema is a mark of genius or just a way of avoiding being held to the same critical standards as everyone else – but he remains a film-maker of note. Kill Bill is a virtuoso display of his style – its limitations as well as its possibilities.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 23rd 2003: 

It is with a mixture of pride, alarm, and indifference that I look back and realise I’ve been writing reviews of various kinds for well over nine years now, on and off (mostly off). I started off as a theatre critic, and the first film I wrote about was, well, The Crow, which isn’t particularly relevant to this week’s topic. But not very long after that I reviewed Pulp Fiction, which is. The piece itself got spiked, which is probably just as well as the last paragraph started something like ‘What’s most exciting is that Quentin Tarantino is only 31 and still has decades of film-making ahead of him…’ Yeah, at the rate of one film every five years.

Well, anyway, the lad is back and he’s brought with him Kill Bill (Volume One), the first half of his latest project – a grindhouse epic split into two halves, solely to maintain that punchy, authentic exploitation movie feel, and in no way shape or form simply a ploy to double the box office of a massively over budget project. Those dismayed by Jackie Brown, with its tendency to focus on things like characterisation, depth, and credible plotting, will be relieved to learn that this is much more of a muchness with Tarantino’s first two movies.

This is the story of an assassin known only as the Bride (played, rather laconically, by Uma Thurman). She tries to retire and get married. Her boss, Bill (a largely unseen David Carradine) is reluctant to let her go and sicks the rest of his employees on her, slaughtering the wedding party and putting ol’ Bridie in a coma for several years. Eventually she wakes up and sets off to slaughter the lot of them in revenge, starting with petite Yakuza overboss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The exploits which follow are gripping, startling, funny, and in places quite extravagantly horrible.

As I mentioned, on the face of it this has a lot in common with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – it’s a retro-styled film pastiche with a higgledy-piggledy narrative structure, some rather peculiar directorial quirks, many geeky in-jokes, a strong soundtrack, and a black sense of humour. There is also, to be sure, some very strong violence, although I personally think this is something of a departure, Tarantino hasn’t actually made an action movie like this before. The director’s mastery of style and soundtrack and gift for inspired casting are still very much in evidence, along with signs of a new talent for shooting and editing fight sequences (of which there are several, one lasting about twenty minutes all in all).

But where this film seems different to me, and here’s where my opinion will probably become quite outspoken, is in the way that underneath all the quirks and conceits and cartoon sequences and narrative shifts, there’s virtually no substance to speak of. (Maybe all the plot and depth is in Volume Two, but even so that’s not much use at the moment.) The characterisation is almost nonexistent, and the film has zero credibility when it comes to things like realism and credibility (Thurman carries a samurai sword onto a jet airliner as part of her hand-luggage, and we’re also led to believe a doctor can be brutally murdered in his own hospital without anyone raising the alarm for thirteen hours.)

Tarantino simply doesn’t seem interested in credibility or, indeed, in giving his film any kind of moral grounding or framework whatsoever. This is cinema stripped of any kind of context beyond other films, with no relationship to reality. Right and wrong, good and evil, are simply not factors in Tarantino’s universe. Instead he is only concerned with what is and isn’t cool: and what’s cool mainly seems to consist of extremely graphic violence and very sick jokes.

I read a review of Pulp Fiction back in ’94 which basically accused the director of perpetrating a pornography of violence – films which were made solely to revel in the depiction of violent acts, in the same way pornographic films are made solely to depict sexual activities. I didn’t think that was true then, but to me it seems like a fair description of Kill Bill. Violent films per se don’t bother me at all, so long as the violence serves the story. Here the story seems to exist only to serve the gore and slaughter, and the fact the audience is clearly intended to find this funny (and often did, at the screening I went to) really disturbed me.

Tarantino’s technical virtuosity, the skill of the martial arts team, and some impressive performances from Liu, Sonny Chiba, and Chiaki Kuriyama conspire to keep it extremely watchable, though, and I expect I will fork out five quid to see Volume Two (the movie’s closing twist is impeccably delivered). But for me Kill Bill only demonstrates Tarantino’s arrested development as a director – and, what’s more, he’s becoming the very thing his critics have accused him of being all along. Brilliant, but sick.

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