Quentin Tarantino might have gotten in hot water for his depiction of Bruce Lee and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. However, this wasn’t the first time Tarantino made a movie involving the iconic martial artist. This is Kill Bill. This iconic 2003 two-part epic is secretly all about Bruce Lee’s life, legacy, and his thirst for vengeance from beyond the grave.
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Released in 2003 and 2004 respectively, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 are blood-spattered martial arts spaghetti western homages that thrilled audiences across the globe. With themes and direct stylistic recreations of Princess Snow Blood, samurai fiction, thriller, a cruel picture, and countless other grindhouse classics, Kill Bill was one of the most visually impressive and controversial films of the early 2000s.
However, even now, all these years later, the film’s true meaning seems curiously conspicuous from the cinematic conversation. Yes, the duology is about a bride who is slain on her wedding day, who rises from the ashes and hunts down all her old underworld connections on a schlocky revenge fantasy epic. But despite sounding like a 70s grindhouse picture, the film in question pulled in over $180 million in 2003. In actuality, the film is Tarantino’s meta-textual treatise on the life, legacy, and enduring accomplishments of one of cinema’s most important performers, Bruce Lee.
Born Lee Jun-fan, Bruce Lee quickly rose to prominence through a dual career in both American film and television and Chinese martial arts film. His most iconic role in his early career was Kato on the beloved Green Hornet TV show. However, it was his roles in the Chinese Connection, Enter the Dragon, and the posthumously created Game of Death that propelled him to megastardom. Tragically while shooting the aforementioned Game of Death, Lee passed away under circumstances that are often disputed. Some individuals claim he suffered a cerebral edema, some say he was murdered. And still, others claimed that due to a surgery to remove his sweat glands his body collapsed because he was not able to expel toxins at the appropriate rate. Regardless of the reason behind his tragic death, Bruce Lee has since gone on to become a celebrity of totemic potency and virtually unrivaled recognition. And this is largely due to the great potential that was left unfulfilled in his life and work.
If there’s one fact about Tarantino that everyone who watches his movies instantly understands, it’s that old Quentin loves film history, absolutely adores it. To understand just how deep some of the references go within Kill Bill, we need to take a minor detour into Bruce Lee’s real life.
When Bruce Lee was first in America, serving as a martial arts teacher to Hollywood’s elite in order to pay rent, he was also writing his own material. He developed a TV show bible and pitched for a project called The Warrior, which would have seen a Chinese monk coming to the American old West in search for a family member. However, when he arrived he would have to wander the West attempting to find them, fighting off bad guys and helping to solve the problems of the people he met along the way. The legend goes, we pitched this project to multiple people in Hollywood, including some executives at ABC. Any guesses what TV show debuted in 1972, ran for three seasons, multiple made for TV movies and two reboots, all of which star a Shaolin monk traveling to America in search for a family member and then going on adventures? Kung Fu. That’s right! ABC just happened to release a show which has the same throughout plot line of Bruce Lee’s The Warrior.
It’s said that Lee even lobbied and auditioned for the role of Kwai Chang Caine. But due to racist fears surrounding putting an Asian man on TV as the lead in a series, the show’s leading role instead went to David Carradine, a white man who knew nothing about martial arts.
Kill Bill’s protagonist, The Bride grew out of a discussion between Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino on the set of Pulp Fiction. The initial conception of the character is that she would be a great vehicle for Thurman’s talent in the way that many exploitations and genre films were for female stars in the 1970s. However, after sitting down to write the picture, it’s easily apparent that while the literal narrative was a tale of female empowerment. The subtextual layer of the film had a very different meaning, one directly linked to the career of Bruce Lee. The initial image that most moviegoers experienced in The Bride was Uma Thurman in a yellow and black motorcycle suit. This costume is a direct reference to Lee’s Game of Death jumpsuit, the last costume he wore on screen. When The Bride is riding through Tokyo on her motorcycle Al Hirt’s Green Hornet theme plays on the soundtrack.
The references to Lee’s life don’t stop there, however. The crazy 88 gang are all wearing costumes that pay homages to Kato, Bruce’s character in The Green Hornet. When The Bride attacks all the feet of the crazy 88 gang, this is a direct reference to Lee’s 1972 film Fist of Fury, where he uses nunchucks to do the same maneuver. The structure of The Bride going through a list of people who have wronged her is very similar to how Lee’s character fights opponents from floor to floor in Game of Death. The bride even learns and uses Bruce Lee’s iconic one-inch punch during her training montages and to escape being buried alive. And finally, the person that The Bride is working towards killing the entire two films, Bill, he’s played by none other than the man who replaced Bruce Lee in Kung Fu – David Carradine.
Kill Bill exists as a means for Quentin Tarantino to give Bruce Lee one final hurrah, to allow him to prove that his persona, visual style, and martial arts prowess were some of the greatest that ever lived. Over the course of the films, Bruce’s avatar, The Bride wreaks an unending river of carnage to right the wrongs done to her climaxing in the ultimate revenge rescuing the next generation from the clutches of the man who serves as an icon of racial oppression and discord.
We all know that Quentin Tarantino loves to make small references and connections in his films to other films. The character of Broomhilda Von Shaft, played by Kerry Washington in Django Unchained was intended to be a distant ancestor of John Shaft. However, these filmic ties or references don’t always have an explicitly meta-theme that is striving to prove a thesis about the world of film history due to the fact that the references, visual mixes, and overt homages and Kill Bill all dovetail into a thematic narrative argument. The Kill Bill duology just might be his highest achievement.
Kill Bill is the exact opposite of most of Tarantino’s proclivities for homage. It’s actually about the thing it’s homaging. Kill Bill is in dialogue with the previous work of Bruce Lee. It’s attempting to disseminate the visual ideas that he generated. It’s attempting to meta-contextually condemn the racism of ABC in the 1970s. And it’s attempting to give Lee’s memory the honor and respect it deserves. None of Tarantino’s other films attempt anything this complex, intricate or ambitious. Inglorious Bastards has next to nothing to do with the original Inglorious Bastards.
Django Unchained isn’t connected to the legacy of people ripping off and imitating the wildly successful 1966 film Django in any way other than it has a main character named Django. Pulp Fiction uses the tropes of crime pulp novels but it isn’t breaking them down in a way that re-contextualizes them as a statement on them. It’s just saying like wouldn’t it be cool if movie characters talk like real people? Which at the time was a huge leap forward, however. Still, it doesn’t accomplish what Tarantino does with Kill Bill. Bruce Lee was one of the most magnetic personalities ever to grace the silver screen. The fact that he overcame racism, injustices, and prejudices during his lifetime is both incredibly impressive and serves as a towering testament to the power of human will. However, the fact that he did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor is an important injustice.
Will a movie about killing the grand pub pimp of assassins set the legacy right? No, but for me, seeing these films was electric. It was like a secret handshake only me and my hardcore Bruce Lee fans knew the combination for. To put it succinctly, if you’re paying attention, Kill Bill is simultaneously a popcorn revenge fantasy and a loving dissertation on the life, career, and legacy of one of Hollywood’s most important performers, who tragically was taken from us far too soon.
And that’s all we have this week. What do you think? Will Kill Bill Vol. 3 ever get made? Let us know in the comments below and as always, please subscribe to the Nerdstalgic channel in order to stay up to date with everything happening with the Nerdstalgic channel.
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