Lost (& Violent 2-Fer) Weekend
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/3/04
A week from last Saturday was a day of violence in my home. In the early afternoon my wife & I caught a matinee of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2., & in the evening I watched the DVD of Heat- Michael Mann’s 1995 crime extravaganza. Unfortunately, both films were underwhelming- not only as works of art but as, well, action films.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2
First up I’ll tackle KB2. Last October I saw KB1 with friends. It was merely 90 minutes of straightforward mindless comic book violence. Here’s the whole film: A bride (Uma Thurman) & her wedding entourage, are gunned down at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel in El Paso. Texas. Only the Bride survives- after 4 years of being comatose, and made an unconscious prostitute for a sleazy orderly/pimp- to wake up, kick ass, escape from the hospital, and begin her vengeance against the man behind the massacre- her former lover, Bill (David Carradine). Before she can get to Bill she must dispose of his 4 assassins (an elite band of killers, which she was the 5th wheel of, called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad). 1st up is Vernita Green (Vivica Fox). She murders her in front of her daughter. Next up is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu)- the Chinese head of a Japanese Yakuza crime family. After disposing of dozens of her henchmen- the Crazy 88s, & her psychotic female #2, O-Ren’s teenage bodyguard Go-Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), it is Ishii’s turn to die at the Bride’s hand. End of Volume 1, save for the teaser that while in coma the Bride gave birth to her & Bill’s daughter, whom he is raising. No, this was not a deep film, but a virtuoso stylistic triumph over content- visually arresting enough to get a 90 out of 100 from me, even though I chafe at action plots where the slinky female leads can easily manhandle dozens of burly men. I mean, I’m 6’1”, 190 lbs. & no Schwarzenegger, but- save for the lucky kick in the jewels- bet on me 99 times out of a 100 to whip Jennifer Garner’s sexy little ass! But KB1 was so over the top & comic book that it did not matter.
Despite what many have said about KB2 being better it’s not. It’s an ok film that narratively stands on its own, but shows the utter superfluity of KB1, which could have had its backstory sliced to a 6 or 7 minute prologue. KB2 opens with the Bride ready to take on Bill’s own baby brother- the 3rd member of the Assassins, Budd (Michael Madsen). After stalking him to his trailer home he blows her away with a buckshot of salt. Why he does not kill her with regular bullets is a silly question since this is comic book logic. Additionally, he offers to turn over the Bride’s body to Bill’s last assassin for $1 million. She’s another blonde killer femme, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), who is missing an eye & wears a patch. Cue classic 1930s serial film villain stupidity: Budd buries the Bride alive. He even gives her a flashlight in her nailed coffin. Flashback: to her training under misogynistic Chinese Kung Fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). This is needless digression because the stereotyped character- similar to KB1’s involving the Bride’s training with master swordmaker Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba)- adds nothing to the tale that could not have been added in a few casual throwaway references in the script.
Of course, the Bride escapes, heads back to the trailer to finish Budd off, but Elle gets to him first. After telling Elle the grave he buried the Bride in he opens up the suitcase of bills and is bitten repeatedly by a deadly black mamba snake. He dies, Elle recoups her money, heads out the door to go finish off the Bride, but she’s waiting for Elle, and the 2 women trash the trailer until she plucks out Elle’s remaining good eye (Flashback: Pai Mei had plucked out the other eye and she avenged that by poisoning the old Master), leaves her writhing in agony, and squashies the eye beneath her soiled soles.
She takes off to kill Bill, only to waste time with a Mexican pimp. Upon finding Bill she discovers her daughter (Perla Honey-Jardine) with him. Then the film drags because Tarantino, after giving us over 3 hours of mindless violence and shallow characters, wants us to empathize with his cardboard cutouts. Uma Thurman’s Bride’s maternal instincts seem forced, and her hyped showdown with her tormenter bores. Yes, there is a good exchange where Bill gets in a riff on how Superman is the only comic book character whose alter-ego is not his superhero side, and this gives us his real view on humanity, BUT all he does with this salience is try to cast the Bride, whose name we learn is Beatrix Kiddo, as a killer whose alter-ego is Beatrix. Cue banalities and exposition on how hurt Bill was over Beatrix leaving him when she found out she was pregnant. Then the showdown- but it’s tremendously underwhelming as the audience does not care for the characters as much as the director does, and when she finishes off the seemingly mythic Bill with a mere flick of the wrist- a 5-finger heart punch Pai Mei taught her- the audience is left thinking they missed the big brouhaha that was promised. Cue forced reminiscences until the killer punch takes effect, and Beatrix goes to bond with her daughter.
The film’s problems are manifest. Trying to take comic book characters operatic does not work. The film was hyped as the ultimate Revenge Film- but in order for a Revenge tale to work the audience must care for the wronged character. Since Beatrix is a cartoon impervious to real harm we know she’s in no danger, thus feel no empathy. Compare this to Steven Soderbergh’s masterful The Limey, wherein the audience is intimately involved with the avenger’s thoughts from before the first image of the film plays. There we want the Limey to get his vengeance, we understand his motivation and even sympathize. We don’t with Beatrix because she’s not real and Uma Thurman is an so-so actress.
Length is also a big problem. The 2 films run 226 minutes, or just a quarter hour shy of 4 hours. They were originally to be a single entity but, having had so few films from Tarantino over the years his company wanted to double the bang for the buck. Thus the mishmash editing. Individual scenes are expertly paced and woven, but there are just reams of scenes that do not advance the essential shark-like plot. This is not just taste speaking- too many scenes with trivial but wannabe colorful characters grind the film to a snail’s pace. Trim the 90 minutes of KB1 down to 20 or 30 minutes of action, trim the 136 minutes of the plodding KB2 in half & you would’ve had a very good 90-100 minute film with all the excellent action and revelatory scenes intact. The KB films are a triumph of box office greed and marketing over potentially good art (-cum-self-indulgent pointlessness). Another thing gained by making the films one would be that the teaser at the end of KB1, where we find out Beatrix has a daughter, could be cut and that revelation unfold to both character and audience when she actually confronts Bill. Not that the emotion would have overwhelmed, but knowing this fact about Beatrix before she does castrates whatever empathy we might feel for her near the film’s climax.
That Tarantino did not see these points, or did but gave in to them, seems to support my belief that he has yet to show the maturity of a great director. He seemed to be going in the right direction with Jackie Brown (easily his best & most mature film) but has regressed with the 2 Kill Bills. Of KB2 I’d grade it 65 of 100, & for the duo of films I’d give it a 75. I hope I’m wrong, but he seems destined, and satisfied, to be merely an A director of B films.
Almost the exact opposite can be said of director Michael Mann- he seems to be a B director of A films. By that I mean his films lack any vision, or unifying elements that stamp them ‘Michael Mann’- he is so hit & miss in so many ways. Think about it- whatever you think of him the moment a Tarantino film starts you know it. Mann would have, 50 years ago, been the talented but consummate studio director. Perhaps the only unifying element that Mann films have are that they are all far too long. I’ve now seen 4 of his films, 2 excellent ones- Manhunter (far better than its remake, Red Dragon, or any of the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter films- see Nixon for a truly scary Hopkins!) & The Insider- & 2 mediocre to bad ones- Ali &, now, Heat.
The good films overcome their length by the strength of their scripts & the quality of the actors. The 2 bad ones do not. Will Smith gives an embarrassingly comic imitation of Muhammad Ali in a hagiographic whitewash of his career, while Heat is such a clichéd cops & robbers flick that I marvel at how many gullible people there are online. In researching the film the most bandied about words were ‘epic’ & ‘masterpiece’. The film is neither. While the latter term is possibly debatable (not really) the former is not. Epic simply is not equivalent to long. Epic means that the work deals with larger than life characters, situations, & tragedy. Heat is populated by banal small-time off-the-rack clichés of what Hollywood thinks criminals are, not the real deal, has wholly unrealistic situations- especially involving the characters, & cannot, by definition, be tragic since the characters that take a fall are not grand, nor even grandiloquent, to begin with. And, at just 10 minutes shy of 3 hours, it makes KB2 feel like a breezy Looney Tune.
The film, much hyped for the first onscreen meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, opens with an only in Hollywood heist of an armored bank truck. The newest member of the gang- Waingro (Kevin Gage)- panics, which results in the murder of the 3 guards. De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, the gang’s leader, attempts to kill the screw up, but he escapes. Meanwhile, Vincent Hanna (Pacino), LAPD homicide expert, takes over the case. Needless digressions include Hanna’s failing marriage with his faithless wife Justine (Diane Venora) & suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), Waingroe’s revelation as a serial killer of prostitutes, McCauley’s contrived and sparkless romance with a lonely bookworm 25 years his junior, Eady (Amy Brenneman), & the backstory of the newest member of the gang. If the long and superfluous digressions are not bad enough, the implausible action scenes & character interactions are worse- this is an absolutely abominable screenplay, folks. Here are just some of the implausibilities: after figuring out that McCauley’s thieves have turned the tables on him Hanna stops McCauley, who absurdly agrees to a cup of joe with him. This is the big ‘Clash of Titans’ the film hypes, but is as realistic as John Ashcroft breaking bread with Osama bin Laden. Instead, we get insipid dick on the table banter as Hanna warns McCauley he just might have to ‘take him out’. McCauley counters, ‘Oh yeah? I just might have to take you out.’ It would have been a hoot had McCauley replied, ‘You talkin’ to me?’, but no such luck.
When the main bank robbery goes awry McCauley & his sidekick Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), kill dozens with machine guns in downtown LA, while the new guy & their other partner Michael Cheritto, (Tom Sizemore), get killed, Kilmer gets wounded, yet somehow McCauley carries him & the loot to a shot up car and escapes. Made a year after the O.J. Simpson murders one wonders where the LAPD helicopters were to not let the bad guys escape so easily? Eady realizes her new beau, whom she has nothing in common with, is a stone cold killer, as she sees him on a newscast of the shootout. She flees into the night, is followed by McCauley, captured, and dragged back to his place. Of course, love wins out and she consents to go on the run with him to New Zealand (huh?). Having made his great Hollywood escape McCauley just cannot let things rest and jet off with his lover. This is supposed to illustrate his tragic side. He first does in one of his ‘backers’ who doublecrossed him, then goes after Waingroe, who’s stashed at a hotel, under LAPD watch, to trap McCauley. He leaves his lover in the car and tells her to keep it running. He evades the cops and their security cameras by simply pulling a fire alarm. He does in Waingroe, then escapes. But, the hotel is in a panic. He sees Hanna coming for him outside the hotel. He takes off. Hanna, without any backup or telling anyone where he’s going, takes off after McCauley with a machine gun. They clash on the run through the runways of LAX, where Hanna shoots McCauley. The two men- 1 a mad dog killer and the other a workaholic cop- hold hands as McCauley dies. This was supposed to symbolize that they made some connection only men can know when they measured each other’s schlongs over coffee. Forget that McCauley murdered at least a dozen of Hanna’s fellow brother cops in the bank heist- Hanna ‘understands’ this man because he’s a cop that’s ‘on the edge’- a phrase he actually uses to describe himself. Why not say ‘outta control’, too? Then again, McCauley is so sympathetic to him because Hanna realizes that he is like McCauley, who earlier said, ‘I don’t know who I am any more.’ This midlife crisis, apparently, the motivation for his heists & mass murder. Repeat after me, my children- OY!
Meanwhile Kilmer’s character escapes capture because the wife he abused, Charlene (Ashley Judd), somehow overlooks his scumminess and helps him escape. These 2 characters were so one-dimensional you have to wonder why Mann got big stars to play them? Kilmer- so great in The Doors & The Salton Sea- simply phones in his performance. Same goes for the superfluous caricatures acted by John Voight, Tom Sizemore, & Natalie Portman.
In short, Heat is a mediocre movie at best- its visual style accounting for whatever props it deserves. It was only 2 years later that the brilliant L.A. Confidential came along & showed America what a truly great crime film could be. As for the DVD itself? It’s no-frills- there’s no commentary, 3 trailers, but the actual transfer of the film print is very clean, as is the sound quality. Curiously, the DVD package seems to recapitulate the making of the film: great attention paid to the shine, but a fairly hollow core.
I waited years to see this film because it was so overhyped, just like I waited years to see the abominable Schindler’s List. Heat is not that bad, but post-9/11 this sort of juvenilia all seems kind of unreal. Can I have my weekend back?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 5/04 Hackwriters website.]
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