Faster, Pussy Wagon! Kill! Kill!

Back from the dead with the new Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino exposes the dick drive, movie ultraviolence, and his foot fetish

Quentin Tarantino holds the keys to the Pussy Wagon. Of all the reasons why it's good to be the king, surely being able to drive the Pussy Wagon is up there in the top five.

"It brightens up everybody's day," says Tarantino. "When you drive a Pussy Wagon, people see you coming."

He's coming. After six years of self-imposed exile, Tarantino is re-emerging with a movie that's going to sell a mountain of popcorn, one so over-the-top it might bring Bill Bennett out of his self-imposed exile. Tarantino's new Kill Bill, in theaters next Friday, is probably the most violent movie ever made by an American studio [see J. Hoberman's review]. It's definitely the first one to merge the talents of Uma Thurman, David Carradine, and Zamfir the Master of the Pan Flute, precariously balancing them all on a sword's edge.

illustration: Justin Wood

There it is, parked in front of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, a pimped-out yellow Dodge Ram with the cheesy '70s lettering on the back: PUSSY WAGON. Tarantino tosses the valet his keys to this memorable prop from Kill Bill and heads inside to the press junket. He's looking pretty stoked these days, but his actors are still licking their wounds. Kill Bill pushed its estimable cast to the breaking point, its mix of Japanese sword fighting styles and martial arts acrobatics and months of training turning them into welt farmers. It went way over budget, off schedule, and then Tarantino took a saber and sliced the baby in two parts—Kill Bill Volume One opens October 10, the second half February 20.

His last movie, Jackie Brown, came out in 1997, followed by six fat years of nothing. Tarantino was at the center of American culture in the '90s, but it was starting to seem that his influence might amount to precisely this: two guys in a beer commercial arguing about Ginger versus Mary Ann. The absence was making him look smaller. Tarantino was, take your pick: (a) polishing his World War II epic so long that Kilroy went home and took the war movie fad with him; (b) loading the bong and watching Jim Varney movies at 6 a.m. in his Hollywood Hills house. People wondered if he was ever going to make another movie again—if he'd lost it, even how much he ever had it.

"I didn't really necessarily assume he was stuck," says Thurman. "But you know, creative life and work is kind of mysterious like that. People do get lost. People do lose the fire. People's energy does go elsewhere. But that's just the mystery of being alive."

Jackie Brown was a mature, talky movie, sweet and loopy for all its swagger. But it was hardly an adrenaline shot to the heart, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction administered, and the reception was downbeat. During this period, Tarantino was everywhere in the culture, and the exposure made him unable to surprise anybody. If you were ever going to be stuck, this was the place. He had his fortune; he could have continued to hibernate for six more years, clocking Terrence Malick time, Axl Rose time. But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, then forfeit the Pussy Wagon? With Kill Bill, Tarantino wants back in.

When he re-emerged to start filming Kill Bill (in Mexico, China, and Japan), the reports were hardly reassuring: Tarantino packed up Thurman, martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Carradine, and at least a hundred more to Beijing, where daily he would tear up the script and "improvise" incredibly complicated fight scenes on the spot. The script was 222 pages (twice the norm); cast and crew partied when they'd bagged their first 1,000 reels of film; Harvey Weinstein was headed for another heart attack. That's not even getting into the Ecstasy rave at the Great Wall.

Which is to say, after six years off, Tarantino's thinking huge, looking to open a whole new franchise. "I want to give the fans shit they can't even believe they're seeing

in a Hollywood film," he says. "I'm an arrogant man, and when I throw my hat in the ring, I want to be up there with all the big boys. And I wasn't gonna leave until I was satisfied."

You could fold Kill Bill's plot into a fortune cookie. Left for dead on her wedding day, Thurman's The Bride seeks revenge on the bootylicious DiVAS—Deadly Viper Assassination Squad—who did the deed. The DiVAS fit into a tradition of male-led bands of lethal women, from the Manson family to Charlie's Angels to Fox Force Five. But please, don't invoke Girl Power. True, Thurman fights through hordes of men and women for the ultimate battle, against Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii. Both have their dignity, and one of them leaves with it. But Girl Power's been used to sell everything from Lucky magazine to Britney Spears, and maybe it's time we found a new name for the license to kick ass.

Kill Bill is the most film-referential film Tarantino has made yet. It's as if he pulled back from the world after Jackie Brown, curled up with his inner geek, and went a little comatose. Kill Bill references the kung fu movies that flowed from Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio in the '60s and '70s, spaghetti westerns, Japanese anime, and the ultra-bloody films of Japanese master Kinji Fukasaku, who died in January. Daryl Hannah says there's even the influence of Jackass, which Tarantino was watching while choreographing a fight scene with her.

Tarantino calls Fukasaku's last film, Battle Royale—a disturbingly bloody teensploitation film set in a slightly futuristic Japan—a movie impossible to overpraise, and says he is stunned that it was made by a 70-year-old man. Old directors rarely have this much juice, he says. "It's a sad cliché that most every director ends their career with a whimper," says Tarantino, who was friends with Fukasaku over the last 10 years of his life. "You know, it's like, 'The sex drive goes, great! Now I can devote myself to my art.' They didn't realize the dick drive is connected to the art drive." He's either about to break into "Dem Bones" or embarrass himself, so he stops. For the moment.

A child raised by a single mom grows up to direct a movie in which women open cans of whup-ass from Mexico to Mount Fuji. And then he has to go and start spouting about the dick drive. Kill Bill deserves more than talk about Girl Power, deserves more than talk about the big boys. Maybe he should hand over the keys and let Uma get the Pussy Wagon home.


What Kill Bill comes down to in the end, perhaps, is a very small thing and a very large thing.

The small thing—things—are Thurman's feet. When Tarantino was meeting with her about Pulp Fiction, he reportedly proffered a friendly foot rub. In that movie, mobster Tony Rocky Horror got tossed out of the window by Ving Rhames for giving Thurman's character a foot massage. When Thurman's The Bride wakes from a coma and escapes from the hospital in Kill Bill, she struggles to get her paralyzed feet to regain sensation. For what seems like minutes these totemic toes fill the screen.

"He shot the whole movie on feet," laughs Thurman. "He could have put the entire story together on feet."

The guy digs her dogs, and he turns them into something huge and pure pop on the screen—you want to shout at them toes to start a-wiggling. It's not just that he's a foot fetishist, but that he takes what he cares about—personal, quirky stuff—and transforms it into art. He hooks you in, too.

The other thing—the large-scale thing—is the last scene in the picture, about 20 minutes long. It's set in a Tokyo nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves (no word whether playwright John Guare will follow through on his threat to go medieval on Tarantino's ass for copyright infringement). The scene is destined to be taught in film schools and ripped off in hip-hop videos for the next 20 years.

This movie isn't about story: It visually establishes a series of hyper-vivid places, then unleashes frenzy in them. The most hyper-vivid place of all is the House of Blue Leaves. And it's the greatest scene in the movie because it isn't just a series of fights—it tells a story through battle, it has rhythm and punctuation while being practically wordless. Writing mannered, dazzling ribbons of words—fully engaged with the real-world dialogue—is arguably what Tarantino does best. So it's worrisome that he pulls back from the world and coops up in the video store of his cerebellum. Or, it would be worrisome, if he didn't make that nonexistent place seem so cavernous. There's more structure and narrative in the House of Blue Leaves scene than in the rest of the movie.

Uma Thurman enters a nightclub where a garage band wails. There's a glassed-over Zen garden below the dancefloor. Upstairs, Lucy Liu is hanging with her yakuza gang, the Crazy 88s. Before it's all over, black-masked 88s storm the screen in tribute to Fukasaku and the Green Hornet, raging like hormones, all eventually mowed down by The Bride. They lie limbless, gushing hoses of blood, so much General Tso's chicken across the deserted dancefloor.

It took months to film this scene in Beijing, and Thurman says she almost didn't survive the experience. "I had a big meltdown one day. And you don't want to see me have a meltdown. I'm swinging a sword that close to someone's face, and it's all well and good to say [she does Tarantino's booming mook voice], 'Hey let's do another one! Ha ha! It's great.' But after hour 14 or 15 of that, it's scary. You don't want to have your eye taken out."

The cast members largely do their own stunts, and much of the action is shot in long takes. "They would just make up stuff on the spot, and I would have to learn 10 or 12 combinations of moves and then shoot it at full speed, full strength. Five guys! Ten guys! Four guys! Up, down, five ways! And at some moment my nervous system just said . . . " Her hand drifts up in the air like a balloon escaping.

"I was only safe from stuff I thought an insurance company wouldn't let him do it. That was the only time I would be safe—when it was definitely, positively illegal."

How did Liu feel seeing herself walk around the set made up for her final scene, in which she gets a severe samurai flattop? "It was a relief," she says. Nothing else bad could happen.

The House of Blue Leaves scene will be what people remember from this movie—it will keep their heads ringing. Tarantino says it's meant to be his equivalent of the Apocalypse Now "Ride of the Valkyries" scene, and it succeeds in part because the making of Kill Bill approached the crazed, against-nature vibe of the making of Apocalypse Now.

"The hardest thing about that scene was simply capturing the movie I had in my head," says Tarantino. "Because the one in my head was as good as any action sequence I've seen in my life. I didn't do all this to be OK. I didn't do all of it to be on a learning curve all right, so that the next action movie I do will be really good.

"I've always considered action directors to be the most cinematic directors—a good action sequence is cinema in its purest form. There's other directors with more resonance, with more depth of feeling, depth of behavior, whatever, but when it comes to pure cinema it's usually a really good action sequence." For all the screams and punchlines, for the soundtrack by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and the incredibly well-mic'd way the swords come out of bodies, you almost don't need ears. As for the director, we may be wishing that he pipes down any day now, but he's made a vivid and livid silent movie for the 21st century.


Related Article:
J. Hoberman's review of Kill Bill Vol. 1

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