With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino loves action movies. Quentin Tarantino’s characters love action movies. The history of action cinema, especially the history of cheap ’70s exploitation action cinema, is threaded through Tarantino’s entire filmography. It’s there in the way his camera quotes old scenes, in the way his characters speak fluently about movies, and in the posters that show up hanging on walls or the images that play on TV sets in the backgrounds of his shots. But Tarantino has only made one action movie. And, as it happens, it’s a masterpiece, one of the best of the century so far. He might be one and done, but the one is spectacular.
Before Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino’s movies would have quick little action scenes: Harvey Keitel shooting two guns through the windshield in Reservoir Dogs, Bruce Willis finding the samurai sword on the wall in Pulp Fiction. After Kill Bill: Vol. 1, he kept making action scenes: the car-chase insanity in Death Proof, the mansion shootout in Django Unchained. But all of Tarantino’s movies—even the second part of the Kill Bill saga, which he’d originally conceived as one long movie—are built around character moments, vivid dialogue, and tense confrontations, rather than the carnage that so often follows those confrontations. That first Kill Bill is the one time Tarantino tried to compete with his heroes and make a few absurd, ridiculous, amazing fight scenes of his own. He pulled it off.
After the second Kill Bill came out, Tarantino would explain, in interviews, why he’d decided to turn Kill Bill into two movies. To make the whole thing into one movie, he would’ve had to cut and streamline. And Kill Bill is not a movie made to be streamlined. It’s a movie where ideas and images fly in all directions, where the movie will suddenly snap into black-and-white and then back to color again a few minutes later, for no real reason other than the fact that Tarantino thought it looked cool. This is a movie that turns into anime for about 10 minutes in the middle, and that interlude doesn’t even feel like that big a deal. It’s a story composed almost entirely out of digression. And here’s Tarantino in one interview, explaining why he didn’t want to cut all these extra ideas: “To me, that’s kind of what the movie was, are these little detours and these little grace notes.”
Kill Bill—the whole bloody affair—is messy. The tone veers wildly from cartoonish silliness to bloodcurdling emotional intensity; think of the moment where Uma Thurman wakes from her coma, realizes that she’s no longer pregnant, and lets out a feral-animal howl before she gets to killing motherfuckers. And somehow, probably because Tarantino knows what he’s doing, those abrupt tonal shifts never kill the movie’s momentum. It rockets forward on its own logic, over the course of two movies. It’s a four-hour revenge spectacular that ends with a long philosophical discussion.
That second movie is, of course, the more contemplative of the two. It’s built around conversations, betrayals, and sweeping vistas. There are some great fight scenes—the throw-down with Daryl Hannah in the trailer is one for the ages—but the fight scenes aren’t the point. In Vol. 1, the fight scenes are very much the point. In a way, the Bride’s trip to Japan, and her battle with her old colleague O-Ren Ishii, is almost incidental to the plot. She is, after all, only one of the names on the Bride’s list, and another director might’ve dispatched of her storyline in five or 10 minutes. But Tarantino builds the whole movie around it, relishing the opportunity to show Thurman throwing down against an army of masked, sword-wielding assassins in a beautifully designed Tokyo restaurant.
That endless restaurant scene has so much. It has Hong Kong kung fu OG Gordon Liu as a masked leader, balancing on railings while he swings his knives with blinding speed. It has Battle Royale’s Chiaki Kuriyama as an insane mace-swinging murderer child, spinning her weapon under her legs and around her neck. It has the Grand Guignol bloodletting of the massive group sword-brawl, with dozens of bad guys geysering oceans of blood, some Evil Dead slapstick that almost transcends any action-movie pedigree. And it has the gorgeous final duel with Lucy Liu, the one that switches abruptly from ’70s kung-fu-movie chaos to ’70s samurai-movie stillness. The whole sequence is a symphony, a movie unto itself, and it’s our clearest signal that Tarantino belongs in the canon next to the drive-in auteurs that he idolizes.
But Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is more than that one scene. The opening fight with Vivica Fox is another masterpiece, albeit a smaller one, and it seems to come from an entirely different movie. It’s fast and brutal and, for a movie like this, relatively realistic, closer to the Paris apartment fight in The Bourne Identity than anything that follows. And it’s also got the added pathos of Fox’s character’s daughter walking in at the exact moment when her mother dies. More than a decade later, there’s still talk of a third Kill Bill movie, built around that daughter and her own quest for revenge. We can hope.
Even when there’s nobody fighting, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 works as an extended love letter to the entire history of action movies, and to a few other genres besides. It’s there in the Shaw Brothers title card that comes up before the movie even starts. It’s there in the way Tarantino uses ultraviolent Japanese karate-movie master Sonny Chiba and doesn’t even make him fight; he’s there entirely to provide charm and gravitas, two things that never really entered the picture in Chiba’s own Street Fighter movies. (The scene where Thurman first walks into Chiba’s restaurant is a tiny little screwball comedy, and it’s weirdly great.) It’s there in the way Thurman delivers dialogue, which is almost as effective a Pam Grier homage as Jackie Brown, the actual Pam Grier movie that Tarantino had made immediately before.
Thurman is a wonder in those movies, and it’s a shame she never really returned to the action-movie world afterward, whether by choice or by circumstance. She’s imposing and physically gifted enough to do an impressive amount of the actual fighting. (Thurman certainly had a stuntwoman, and that stuntwoman, Zoe Bell, impressed Tarantino enough that he basically made her the hero of Death Proof, his next movie. Still, Thurman herself put the same sort of work into looking badass while fighting onscreen that Keanu Reeves had done with The Matrixa couple of years before.) But it’s Thurman’s line readings that always get me. She speaks almost entirely in badass aphorisms, and she delivers them with equal amounts icy detachment and wounded-animal intensity. One favorite moment: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.” Another: “Leave the limbs you’ve lost. Those belong to me.” Another: “When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.” I could go on.
Nobody talks like this, of course. All the figures in the Kill Bill movies are mythic archetypes. Tarantino never makes any attempt to ground them in a reality that looks anything like our own. Tarantino tends to build movies out of movie tropes rather than actual human characters and situations and experiences. And if he wasn’t so great at it, this might be a problem. But it’s not, and it never was. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 isn’t just Tarantino’s only action movie; it’s his purest movie-movie, the one work that’s most detached from reality. And yet it still feels completely sincere because he loves these movies and archetypes and images and ideas. It’s a movie with its own sort of dream logic. Its rules are its own.
I wish I could say that Kill Bill: Vol. 1 had been more influential in that sense. There have been plenty of movies built out of movie tropes in the years since, but only a few (like, for instance, Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird) that take that same sense of joy in it. Still, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 isn’t just a great movie; it’s also, I’d argue, an important one in action-movie history. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping had already done great, high-profile work with The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but his work in that first Kill Bill somehow eclipses both of those. And in the years that would follow, the really great action directors have put that same love and care into their fight scenes. That House Of Blue Leaves sequence matters because it raised the bar for what a fight scene could be in a 21st-century action movie. In the years that would follow, only a few movies answered its challenge.
Other notable 2003 action movies: Runner-up honors absolutely belong to the jaw-dropping, boundary-shattering Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a movie that made Tony Jaa into the closest thing this generation has to a Bruce Lee figure. In terms of narrative filmmaking, Ong-Bak isn’t much; it’s just another Way Of The Dragon-style “bumpkin comes to the big city, fights gangsters” movie. But those fights are absolute works of art. Jaa, an expert at Muay Thai, was (and is) able to do absurdist, impossible Jackie Chan-style stunts, and he could do them while delivering elbow-based blows that look like they would absolutely cave in skulls if they happened in real life. If you care about action movies at all and you haven’t seen Ong-Bak, you need to fix that.
2003 was also the year of Pirates Of The Caribbean, a shockingly delightful adventure romp that would turn into an overblown, intolerable franchise. By movie three, it would be turning Chow Yun-Fat into a human punchline. We will not speak of this franchise again. But on the subject of bloated franchises, there were plenty of those happening in 2003. Bad Boys 2 would push the Michael Bay-osity of the original to incomprehensible new heights, insulting the living hell out of its audience in the process. I am fairly certain that people today only say nice things about it because of a Hot Fuzz joke.The Matrix ReloadedandThe Matrix Revolutionshad the opposite problem. They had some very cool action scenes, but they pushed the head-trip ideas of the original way, way too far, abandoning all sense in the name of is-the-world-even-real philosophizing. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, meanwhile, was an obnoxious car wreck that immediately squandered all the goodwill from its James Cameron-directed predecessors. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle Of Life had Gerard Butler and, I think, a giant robot? Or something? It’s been a while.
Only a few of those sequels really had any life to them. 2 Fast 2 Furious lost Vin Diesel but cranked up the silliness of the original and added both Tyrese and Ludacris to what would become a deep and fun roster once those movies really got great. Once Upon A Time In Mexico concluded Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi saga with a way-too-busy epic that nevertheless included some iconic images, like an eyeless Johnny Depp going out in a blaze of glory. And Shanghai Knights was low-stakes silliness with a whole lot of fun chemistry and some good shit with Donnie Yen as the villain.
But as usual, the best things happening in American action movies did not have anything to do with any franchises. The Rundowngave The Rock his first chance to show what he could be as an action star, and it’s great. The movie has one of the most giddily fun opening fights in recent memory, and the whole movie keeps that lighthearted sensibility going. It also indirectly helped spawn a whole Chilean action-movie industry, as the movie’s stuntmen, led by towering martial arts badass Marko Zaror, started making their own movies soon after. Cradle 2 The Grave, meanwhile, was the final DMX-starring martial-arts romp from director Andrzej Bartkowiak and star DMX, and it’s both the best and the most ridiculous. It’s got a scene where Jet Li drops into a cage fight and ends up fighting an entire locker room of MMA fighters and a scene where DMX, on the run from police, steals a four-wheeler from some extreme sports guys, which leads to a beautiful piece of business where the extreme-sports guys chase DMX as he jumps his four-wheeler from rooftop to rooftop. It makes absolutely no sense, and I love it so much.
There were some good serious movies, as well. The Hunted is a sort of dark retelling of the First Blood myth with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, and it’s built around the idea that Rambo was essentially a serial killer; it’s got some of the best knife fights you’ll ever see in a non-South Korean movie. And The Last Samurai was, more or less, Dances With Wolves, except with Tom Cruise instead of Kevin Costner and Japanese samurai warriors instead of Native Americans. It’s got all the same white-savior problems, but Cruise is fun to watch, and the fights are amazing.
There was less-inspired fare, too, like S.W.A.T., an adaptation of the old cop show with Colin Farrell doing his best to bland himself up for mainstream movie stardom, something that thankfully didn’t work out. Or Bulletproof Monk, which served as proof, if we needed it, that Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott do not have a whole lot of onscreen chemistry. (Honestly, it’s amazing that Stifler from American Pie got two action-movie sidekick roles in one year and that he did pretty well with one of them. He and The Rock are great together in The Rundown.) The Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck was John Woo’s final Hollywood movie, and these days, people mostly use its title to make jokes about the (original) era when Ben Affleck was making a whole lot of shitty movies. With A Man Apart, Vin Diesel turned out to be a not-very-convincing vengeance-driven vigilante. And the vampires-vs.-werewolves Matrix bite Underworld kicked off one of the least interesting action franchises in history.
As always, interesting things were happening in Asia. In Hong Kong, Johnnie To made both PTU, about a single night of clashes between police and the underworld, and Running On Karma, about a monk with magical powers. In Japan, Takeshi Kitano revived a beloved old samurai-movie series and pushed it in fun, absurdist directions with Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. And while the South Korean classic Oldboy is more of a fucked-up psychological thriller than an action movie, its hallway hammer fight is one of the best and most influential action scenes of the century thus far.
Next time: Director Paul Greengrass hijacks the Bourne series with The Bourne Supremacy, and his shaky cameras and chaotic editing would colonize American action movies. It’s a great movie with a terrible legacy.