Kill Bill (fight 1 of 4)

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

– old Klingon proverb

Kill Bill is an odd movie (or pair of movies), even by Quentin Tarantino standards. Made after a six-year absence, which itself followed quite a hot streak, it’s arguably the beginning point of the auteur’s (still ongoing) decadent & self-indulgent phase. Though that’s quite fitting, considering the whole point of the thing was for Tarantino to dive head-first into the sort of throwback genre filmmaking he had only paid glancing tributes to in the past. It’s a B-movie plot & premise made with A-level talent, and the resulting mix vacillates between brilliance & irritation– your mileage may vary.

Adding to the movies’ schizophrenia is the late-in-the-game decision to split it the story in half, making two films out of what was intended to be one. The idea, “suggested” by the studio, was almost certainly financial, but QT tried to cover for it by claiming that one three-hour action movie is boring, whereas two 90-minute movies is more appropriate and “ambitious.” Of course, both movies well exceed their 90-minute run time, with 111 minutes for Volume 1 and 136 minutes for #2. The first feels abrupt and action-packed while the second is far more talky and laconic– a clear sign of its obviously longer production/post-production time, with many pointless scenes inserted apparently just so Tarantino could give minutes-long monologues to some of his favorite character actors.

(This also resulted in silly decisions like coyly keeping the titular Bill’s face off-camera for the whole of the first film. I mean, really– are we supposed to not know what David Carradine looks like?)

Still, when the film works, it really works, especially during those action scenes. Much praise is due to Tarantino who, despite his reputation for violence, had never really done any sort of “action” film before, but a lot is also thanks to star Uma Thurman as well. Not all of her performance works perfectly in the movie, but she most certainly puts her game face on when it comes fightin’ time. This girl can beat some ass.

[Administrative note: I’m treating this movie as one big movie, which theoretically it ought to be– a shame Tarantino’s “The Whole Bloody Affair” edit never got a wide American release, I’d buy that on Bluray in a heartbeat. Also the movie does take place out of chronological order, so if any of you wants to get cute by arguing which fight really does come “first,” know that I am, as always, writing up the fights in the order the audience seems them happen in.]

[Second administrative note: After hearing rave reviews about the movie’s epic script online, I purchased (for an amount of money I’m too ashamed to disclose) a copy of the script via eBay, about a year before Volume 1 came out. It is largely the same as the finished story, with a few significant changes and one entire (cool, but superfluous) chapter removed. I will comment on the differences when appropriate.]

1) The Bride vs Vernita Green

The Fighters:

  • The Bride, aka (spoiler) Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba. A veteran assassin and deadly warrior out for revenge against the former colleagues who betrayed her. Her real name is amusingly bleeped out (like a curse word on TV) every time it’s mentioned until very late in the second movie; this is done apparently so that she is mostly only thought of as the archetypical “Bride” figure (it’s even how she’s named in the script), as well as set up the punchline to a joke that every time Bill addressed her as “kiddo” in flashbacks, it wasn’t merely an affectionate nickname. Played by Uma Thurman, who originally developed the character with Tarantino.
    • Armed with: she brings a hunting knife with her, but doesn’t draw it until Vernita produces her own blade.
  • Vernita Green aka Jeannie Bell aka Copperhead. A member of the Bride’s former team, who has since left the crime business for domestic bliss under the “Bell” alias. A husband (not seen) and young child have not made her any less lethal. Played by Vivica A. Fox.
    • Armed with: nothing to start but, as mentioned, later produces a knife, as well as some other handy implements.

The Setup: For an undisclosed number of years, the Bride and Vernita were, along with several other (mostly female) killers, members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS, get it? It’s a “real” version of the “Fox Force Five” TV show Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction had starred in the pilot for), led by the titular Bill. The group’s snake theme led to each having the code name of a killer serpent, hence “Black Mamba” and “Copperhead.” (Vernita later grouses that SHE should have been Black Mamba, presumably because she was the only black member of the team, but maybe Bill thought that would be too on-the-nose.)

For reasons that are gradually revealed (long story short: Beatrix, Bill’s lover, discovered she was pregnant, and went into hiding to keep her child safe from Bill’s criminal life. Under a fake name she got engaged to a shlubby but nice & ordinary man… and Bill, upon tracking her down, assumed that she had betrayed him), Bill brought the entirety of the DiVAS to bear his wrath on the Bride’s wedding rehearsal day, killing her fiancee & new friends. Bill himself put a bullet in her head, leaving her for dead in her own wedding dress. She miraculously survived and awakens from a four-year coma to find her baby gone — she assumes dead, but the baby had actually been delivered safely and taken by Bill. After recovering and arming herself suitably, she embarks on a “rip-roaring rampage of revenge” to take down the folks who wronged her, one by one.

First we see her target Vernita Green, living in an idyllic suburb. At home alone, she answers the doorbell and, from her dialogue, she seems to think it’s a friend of hers come to visit. It isn’t.

The Fight: Vernita opens the door and after a quick glare in which we hear the Bride’s “revenge theme” playing on the soundtrack (the film’s audio cue signal that the Bride has set eyes on her latest target of revenge. It’s an obnoxious but weirdly funny musical bit with a blaring siren featured prominently. Taken from the TV show Ironside), followed by a punch to the face.

From there it just goes nuts. Vernita may be retired and she may not be driven by revenge like the Bride, but she does have a family to live for, so she fights back ferociously. She’s not shy about using her own home as a weapon, however, and the domestic tranquility transforms quite rapidly into a war zone.

The two throw each other through glass and into walls. The Bride kicks Vernita in the crotch (!) and drops her through her own coffee table. Vernita grabs one of those broken table legs and uses it to bash Kiddo in the calf. The Bride nearly chokes out Vernita, until the latter stops her by grabbing a fireplace poker and whacking her in the head with it.

Soon enough the fight goes into the kitchen, where Vernita ran to get a knife. The Bride barely dodges her initial lunges and deflects more by seizing a frying pan. After some creative use of the kitchen table, the Bride matches her by whipping out her own blade.

“This is even worse than the time I let those Mormons in”

With both combatants solidly armed, the two slowly move back to the living room in a tense stand-off, tentatively searching for an opening in the knowledge that one wrong move will bring death. The stalemate drags on as the audience sees, through the bay window the two ladies are on either side of, the approach of a school bus, which lets off a little girl who trots obliviously towards the house. As the reality of this sinks in, Vernita pleads silently not to continue this in front of her daughter. The Bride acquiesces, and both hide their blades just as “Jeannie’s” daughter Nikki comes through the front door.

The choreography has a definite martial arts feel to it, but not in any extravagant way. It’s quick, mean, even desperate. Tarantino makes a few aesthetic concessions, such as overt “whoosh” sound effects whenever either lady gets flipped through the air, but there’s an overall sense of this fight’s realness– it feels like it could really happen. Especially considering how the two combatants look after not too long: bruised, battered, bloody, sweaty and tired. It’s in this state that Nikki finds them.

Nope, nothing suspicious at all.

Vernita bluffs the girl’s initial hesitation away (“This is an old friend of mine I haven’t seen in a while,” she says with forced sweetness. It’s technically true), and makes her leave. Tension deflated, the two head for coffee in the kitchen.

After some discussion they agree to finish their duel elsewhere, later that night. In the original script there’s some discussion over how the Bride deliberately chose to make this a fight rather than a hit; she could have easily taken out Vernita at a distance with a sniper rifle or a bomb, but she had enough respect for her old comrade to give her a fighting chance. It’s not brought up here.

And in any case, Vernita shows no similar restraint in return. Hiding a gun inside a children’s cereal box (called “Kabooms,” of course), she takes a shot at the Bride that misses, which the heroine responds to by throwing her knife straight into Vernita’s heart. She slumps to the floor and dies within seconds.

The real kicker comes in the denouement: as Beatrix pulls the knife from her opponent’s chest, she turns to find  four-year-old Nikki standing behind her, looking right at her mother’s corpse and too shocked to speak. The Bride, cold as ice, tells Nikki that although she didn’t want Nikki to see this, her mother nonetheless “had it comin'” and if Nikki grows up and wants payback, she can look Beatrix up. Harsh.

(There’s also another, smaller kick after that: when the Bride goes back to her car, she crosses Vernita’s name off her kill list… and we see that it’s the second name getting crossed off. The plot, she thickens.)

As we’ve discussed here numerous times, the main job of the opening fight scene is to set the tone, or, as is the case here, the baseline. As mentioned earlier it’s an interesting mix of the fantastic and the grittily realistic, just as the movie itself largely is. But things will certainly get more ridiculous from here on out, and it was wise of Tarantino to start out with what’s arguably the most grounded encounter.

The fight pulls no punches. And neither, as we learn at the end, does the Bride: her cold-blooded behavior proves that her single-minded quest for revenge will have human consequences, and neither is she a very healthy person. This isn’t about right and wrong so much as it is about unfinished business.

As a side note, Tarantino has said repeatedly that he plans to make a third movie many years from now about Nikki’s own quest for revenge against the Bride. But then, Tarantino says a lot of things.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: An unfair fight.

Totally unfair. They don’t stand a chance.

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4 comments on “Kill Bill (fight 1 of 4)

  1. Andy says:

    I think the fight’s style has a lot to do with the idea that each combatant the Bride faces is supposed to represent a different B-movie genre. Vernita is probably intended to be the kind of character Pam Grier is best known for playing, so it makes sense that the fight would be a down and dirty street-fightin’ sort of thing, not a graceful martial arts battle.

    • Good call. It sounds something Quentin would do, though I don’t recall reading that.

      In that case, the fight with the Crazy 88 is a gonzo blood-fest, the duel with O-Ren is a tribute to stately samurai movies, and the battle with Elle… well it’s fairly similar to the fight with Vernita, only bigger and meaner. So maybe the really brutal “wronged woman” movie? Drawing a blank.

  2. Andy says:

    IIRC, Tarantino said the Bride vs. Elle fight is basically his homage to War of the Gargantuas/kaiju movies, which is kind of oblique but it would explain why he inserts a Godzilla roar partway through the battle.

    • Hmm, the fight doesn’t really play out that way, though there is some similar gravity behind it. Most of it comes through after they both get swords and stare down at each other. I noticed at the time (and wrote about it in the waiting draft for the fourth fight) that the music plays it up like they’re two tyrannosaurs about to charge.

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