Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2003 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Michael Medved

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'Kill Bill' mocks innate revulsion toward cruelty | Has Hollywood finally gone too far in its dark obsession with exploitative gore?

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which opened to surprisingly strong business on Oct. 10, represents a new low in its jeering, pseudo-sophisticated celebration of meaningless brutality.

Widely described as the bloodiest feature film ever released by a major studio (in this case, Disney's Miramax division), the movie stands out not because of the presence of graphic violence but due to the absence of anything else.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 offers no characters, no relationships, no plot, no suspense, no clever dialogue and no resolution. Instead, it plays like an extended, unspeakably gory trailer for Kill Bill: Vol. 2, scheduled to be released in February. Other films will deploy extreme brutality to advance or intensify a story, but this one concentrates on violence as a substitute for story or intensity.

The main character, a pointedly unnamed, pregnant bride played by Uma Thurman, survives an unexplained wedding day assault, then arises from a coma to pursue an orgy of revenge. Tarantino delivers a buffet of murder and mayhem, with more than 100 performers slaughtered on screen - not just killed, but also horribly mutilated. One gets his tongue chewed off during an attempted rape of the comatose heroine; another dies as his skull is crushed repeatedly in a slamming door. Countless others watch their limbs being sliced off, with the director highlighting splashy (literally) technology that simulates spurting arteries that spray blood in a delicate, fine mist. Lucy Liu, playing a crime boss in Tokyo, punishes a fellow gangster for his disrespectful remark by slicing off his head with a single stroke of her sword and watching the still-grimacing face thud and bounce on a table.

"It's so violent," Liu proudly announced to reporters. "People will leave the movie theater or get sick in the movie theater. But there's so much violence that it becomes not numbing, but almost comedic."

Tarantino himself justifies his latest work in similar terms, denying any effort at realism. "This is definitely not taking place on planet Earth," he declared, insisting that the true setting for his blood-spattered martial-arts extravaganza is "fantasy land." This argument ignores the obvious fact that even though fantasies may not kill or maim, they still can corrupt and degrade. Treating graphic violence as a joke doesn't make it less disturbing or damaging.

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In terms of mutilated bodies and splattering brains, Saving Private Ryan assaulted its audience with imagery far more realistic than anything in Kill Bill, and its Normandy battle scenes involved a higher body count. The horror, however, served an obvious purpose: not only dramatizing an historic turning point in World War II, but also unfolding a gripping story about fictional characters that Steven Spielberg depicts with affection and intimacy. Similar artistry informs Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, another shocking film about murder released the same week as Kill Bill. Unlike Tarantino's gore fest, Mystic River focuses on the emotional cost of violence, not just its anatomical impact. Even Tarantino's previous blockbuster, Pulp Fiction, interrupted violent set pieces with unforgettable characterizations and tangy, eccentric dialogue.

This time, the overpraised auteur and his star take perverse pride in the shallow, sadistic nature of their project. Tarantino calls it a "black comedy," and Thurman admits, "It's so violent I don't think the (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) will like it. It doesn't pander to the Oscar community."

Nevertheless, some influential critics (including Roger Ebert and USA TODAY's Mike Clark) hailed the movie for its bravura style. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) awarded it the mainstream "R" designation, rather than the more restrictive (and vastly more appropriate) "NC-17," which would have banned viewers younger than 18. As a matter of policy, the MPAA never explains or justifies its rating decisions, but if this picture's unspeakably violent excesses didn't provoke an "adults only" rating, it's hard to imagine what additional gore a director must display to provoke that NC-17.

Kill Bill's most dangerous impact isn't the remote possibility that deranged moviegoers will imitate its bloody rampages, but rather that greedy filmmakers will imitate its soulless sadism. The movie represents another step in the desensitization process that erodes cultural standards and mocks our innate, healthy revulsion toward cruelty.

"I actually want 13-year-old girls to see this movie," Tarantino told Reuters Television. "I think this will be very empowering for them."

Just two years after Sept. 11 purportedly "changed everything," inspiring a short-lived sense of national seriousness that made it temporarily difficult to smirk at mass murder, Tarantino feels empowered once again to revel in context-free brutality for its own sweet sake. At a time when thousands of young Americans in uniform put themselves at risk to defend us against real-life killers, the entertainment industry promotes and praises a degenerate movie suggesting that death and combat are essentially trivial - worthy only of stylish artifice and winking, film-geek references to earlier exploitation flicks.

This cynical posture threatens to make us number and dumber, coarsening sensibilities and lowering the expectations of all moviegoers. Kill Bill also will generate new skepticism toward a pop-culture elite that hypes controversial violence not to send a message, but to distract attention from the lack of any message and to hide the essential emptiness of its enterprise.

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2003, Michael Medved