21 September 2009 - 2:54 pm

Pondering ‘Kill Bill’

I don’t often do reviews, especially not of movies. And this isn’t really a review – it’s a collection of thoughts about a movie. This particular movie (I’m counting both parts as a single entity here) has bothered me for a while, but it wasn’t until I re-watched it recently that I finally realised why.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I’m not a big fan of Tarantino movies. I like the ones I’ve seen well enough, but for the most part, I think the hype is overdone, and he’s not the best director/writer/whatever that’s ever lived. I tend to view movies on what I see, not on who’s done something on it. Just because I loved From Dusk Till Dawn, doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to love Pulp Fiction.

If you think I’ve just blasphemed, it’s probably better if you look away now. For all our sakes.

I should also point out that I adore a good story with kick-ass chicks, martial arts, and swords. I am a huge fan of Marvel’s Elektra, and have seen her handled both well, badly, and downright stupidly. It’s interesting how difficult it is to find a well-written female assassin.

As I mentioned earlier, Kill Bill has irked me since I saw it. Not in any big way – after all, it has taken me a year or two to get around to watching it again – but enough that I get very ‘eh’ when someone mentions it. I wrinkle my nose and wonder what all the fuss is about.

The first time I saw it, it left me with a vaguely unsettled, dissatisfied feeling. Not because of the violence – that’s nothing unusual or even particularly gory – and not because the plot failed to tie up loose ends (it tied them up enough, I think). At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I guess it’s one of those things that is brought into the light by a second viewing, when you can pay attention to more of the underlying things.

Now, after reflection, my biggest problem with the movie is the main character. More precisely, the fact that the main character doesn’t have a character. Apart from her death list, she is an empty shell. I’d say she was a cypher, but she doesn’t fit that mould either.


The movie started out trying to make her into an enigma. Her name is bleeped out all the way through the first part. Then, in the second part… they seem to forget about that. Her name is dropped as if it might be some great revelation, and I was left stunningly underwhelmed. Unless her name is some reference that I am not picking up, I can’t help but wonder what the point of all that was.

Identity and names are character aspects that I love to play with. If you’re going to do something as unusual as hiding a character’s identity in such an obtrusive way, then there must be a reason. In this case, there doesn’t appear to be a reason, and that leaves the whole thing flat for me. The name – and by association, the character – was a great disappointment to me.

That was not the main reason why I was disappointed by the Bride. She’s not just lacking a name: she lacks any kind of identity (even after the name is revealed). She’s not everyman/woman. She’s not a symbol or a cypher. She’s not a fully-fleshed-out person. She’s a vehicle for a series of fight scenes, a machine, and not a terribly interesting one.

The fights are all very pretty and different. I do love me a good fight scene. But we (the audience) are asked to follow the Bride on a journey. We should be engaging with her and at least interested in how she’s going to get to her target (considering the title of the film, I think we all know what her target is and that she’ll get there). Instead, I wind up not caring about what she’s doing, mostly because she doesn’t seem to really care.

While her feet might go on a journey, the character herself doesn’t. She crosses off her death list like she’s collecting groceries at the supermarket – she might be an assassin, but this is supposed to be a personal quest. There’s very little person in this quest.

She doesn’t grow or change; by the end of the movie, she’s pretty much the same person she was at the beginning after she woke up from the coma. Sure, she has a new role to fill (which I won’t state because it’s a major spoiler), but I’m not left with the feeling that it’s going to affect her actions in the future. After all, it didn’t stop her from fulfilling her purpose (or even pause for thought or reassessment, and it should have done at least that much). The movie is a straight line of revenge, predictable and unwavering. The most interesting part of it is the fighting, but fight scenes do not a movie make.

More than anything else, the character – and therefore the movie as a whole – is lacking in motivation. While the movie is a revenge kick and that particular motivation is quite clear, it still comes off feeling very holey to me. There are a lot of whys that are never given, leaving it weak and teetering on what winds up looking like a flimsy excuse. Yes, this group of people tried to kill her and Bill put a bullet in her head. However, she’s an assassin; it comes with the territory and it’s hardly a shock that some other assassins might want to kill her. Yes, there’s the baby aspect, but that barely seems like a driving force in the movie and the previous point still stands.

There’s also a huge lack of rage – the revenge is reasoned out into ‘tit for tat’, ‘you killed me now I kill you’. Most of it is very impersonal. These people are supposed to have been her friends, but I don’t get any of that from their interactions. It is impersonal to the point that the Bride stops and has a cup of coffee and a calm chat with her first (shown) victim in the middle of the fight. She isn’t the one who restarts the fight; in fact, she seems willing to delay it. More professional than personal. So why should we care?

I could have accepted the Bride as a cypher for revenge, but because there isn’t much weight behind the revenge aspect, that doesn’t hold up. There’s nothing to show that she has calculated any of her actions (beyond ‘go there and kill certain people’) – in fact, she’s quite unprepared and clumsy in places – so the ‘cold, calculated revenge’ option is missing too. The pieces of her past that we’re shown don’t tell us why she’s so cold or inclined to violence, either.

Which leads me onto my other problem. We’re never told why this character became an assassin in the first place. What drove her to it? To become as good as she’s supposed to be, there had to be something behind her, pushing her to excel. Normal people don’t tend to become assassins – so what made her choose it? Why is killing her answer to her problems? This wouldn’t be an issue (though still a gap) if the movie didn’t go into her past, but it does.

When she goes to learn Kung Fu with Pai Mei, she seems happy and relaxed. This feels odd when she determinedly beats her own self bloody to please her new master. Why would someone apparently so content do this to herself? Bill is neither a monster nor a bully, and isn’t forcing her. Again, we have no idea of her motivation here. It comes off looking contrived and forced.

What makes all of this particularly obvious is the fact that we have a very good background given for O-Ren Ishii. As a character, she makes sense in ways that the Bride starkly doesn’t – we know why she kills and we know why she does it in her particular way. (O-Ren has her holes too – like what she was doing with the Deadly Vipers at all – but they’re minor compared to the Bride’s.)

Now, I’m sure that I can sit here and fan-wank reasons for all of these issues. I could create a story for the Bride that makes sense. But I’m not inclined to do that – this isn’t my story, and if the pieces I’m shown don’t make sense, then I’m going to be annoyed. Fan-wanking is what people do when the storytellers have failed in some way.


Another problem with the Bride is that she’s a twink. (That’s an RP term, for those of you who don’t know.) There’s nothing she can’t do, no situation she can’t get out of. Worse – she knows it. She walks in knowing she’s going to walk out, and nothing in the middle makes her question that assumption. She’s a fighting machine, and, quite frankly, that’s not that interesting to watch.

The one time she seems to lose her cool is when she’s put in the coffin, but even then, we’re given the handy little story about how she knows exactly how to get out of there. It all feels very convenient and contrived, partly because she’s freaking out one second and then, post-flashback, she’s suddenly calm and fixing it. Once out of the coffin, she shrugs it off, completely unaffected by the experience (which begs the question of why it was put in in the first place).

She’s also something of a Mary Sue (sorry, another RP term), but that mostly stems out of the twink aspect. She’s shiny and special – the so-called ‘perfect killer’ – and, as a result, not quite human. She doesn’t have any flaws – no weaknesses, no doubts, nothing. Even Superman has his weaknesses, and that, ladies and gentleman, is what makes him interesting to watch.

Now, some of the issues with the character may be down to how she was acted. Uma Thurman does posing with a sword well enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot of emoting going on. I have a fondness for subtle acting and characters who hide their true thoughts and feelings, but there wasn’t even a hint at anything going on under the hood with the Bride. And when a character says ‘ooo she looks angry’ and I think she looks blank and maybe a bit scared, I think there’s something wrong there. Show don’t tell, people – it applies to movies just as much as to literature.


So what we wind up with is an effectively empty character with a pre-defined purpose and a straight-line path to get there. We know what is going to happen at the end from the moment the opening sequence rolls. The one thing that should have made it worth the 3-4 hours’ viewing time – the main character’s journey through this tale – is missing. There are fight scenes to keep us entertained along the way, but as I said earlier, fight scenes do not a movie make.

So there you go. Kill Bill has several flaws, but, for me, the main character is the big one. Shame.

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