The Couchplex is not the Multiplex. The Couchplex features movies virtually around the clock for a (not inconsiderable) monthly fee. Yet each film watched — or slept through — at the Couchplex slightly amortizes said fee.
Stakes and expectations are thus lower for a film such as the Tony Scott-helmed potboiler "Man on Fire," an immodestly budgeted, modestly engaging action flick now grinding its way through your premium cable channels. "Man," in which Denzel Washington goes ballistic on the Mexican crooks who kidnapped a child (Dakota Fanning, slumming already) under his protection, reeks of hypocrisy and looks damn good doing it. The hypocrisy, as myriad cranky reviewers have noted, lies in the film's facile use of redemption motifs and squishy kid-love as a foundation for graphic, sadistic violence.
I acknowledge this point but am disinclined to belabor it, because what Rayburn (Christopher Walken, making the best of things) says of Washington's John Creasy is also true of Scott: "His art is death." A jet of blood across a grungy windshield, the slow-mo arc of a shell ejected from an automatic — Scott can paint up a storm with this part of his palette.
"Man on Fire" reeks of hypocrisy and looks damn good doing it.And when Creasy shakes off his newfound domestication to stalk the dirtbag villains, the flick briefly finds its gnarly bliss. His slash-and-burn interrogations and executions, as he grimly tracks down the main offenders, are vicious and undeniably compelling.
Unlike Creasy, however (to complete the corny testimonial forced into Walken's mouth), Scott did not "paint his masterpiece" of cathartic violence here. Where moony, soft-soap resurrections and little girls' diaries are concerned, he's like a first-year art student. Worst of all, the plot's big revelations are as garishly predictable as the self-consciously grimy production design. "Man on Fire" commits a far graver sin than emotional manipulation and brutality: Its title notwithstanding, it's tepid. Still, I believe it amortized the monthly Couchplex fee by 67 cents.
It's odd that whenever either installment of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" diptych airs at the Couchplex, I always watch — even though I already own both features on DVD. Like the red-tailed hawks that coast, on warmer days, outside the Couchplex window, it's often in evidence but never to be taken for granted. "Bill" is relentlessly inventive, ecstatic moviemaking, and every shot is a delectable epiphany. Much has been made of the differences between the relentless exsanguinations of "Vol. 1" (more Japanese, with ample samurai/Yakuza bloodbaths) and the comparatively reflective "Vol. 2" (more Spaghetti Western, with a detour into old-school Hong Kong), but both halves are seamlessly pleasurable. Though heroine Beatrix Kiddo's (Uma Thurman) list of people to kill, with Bill (David Carradine) at the top, should make the plot feel schematic, we never know what's going to happen next. When's the last time you could say that about a flick? Other than "Pulp Fiction," I mean.
But what's really extraordinary is that Tarantino forms his epic revenge plot around an intimate love story — even as he places his characters on a mythic plane. They're not stock "wounded types" in search of the trappings of redemption; they're great warriors pursuing their destinies. "Kill Bill" sports a typically dense, self-referential Tarantino structure, but the themes are timeless: woman breaks man's heart; man hunts woman down and shoots her in the head; woman survives, hunts man down and does something even worse to his heart. Men messing with women's heads, women messing with men's hearts — all the cutting and running, imposture and evasion seem to have something vital to say about love.
The stops on this romantic revenge trip are bloody indeed, but there's no hypocrisy. The movies are not some pale reflection of a fallen world but a world of their own — one far better than that outside.
Each sequence is a spurting Valentine to the film genres that rock Tarantino's world.The dialogue blends the elevated diction of Kung Fu, samurai and other warrior genres with the grittiest vernacular, which is why Bill's third-act monologue in "Vol. 2" about Superman works so splendidly. Meaning here is found in the interstices between myth and the quotidian — as filtered by the movies — not in blurry, studio-sanctioned opposites like "innocence" and "corruption."
There's a child at the heart of the "Kill Bill" movies, too — but she hardly stands for innocence. As raised by father Bill, Beatrix's daughter, B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine), is already on her way to becoming an assassin like her mother. She's adorable, yes, but little B.B. has a killer's instincts, a spooky insouciance and a fondness for samurai movies. Tarantino has raised the possibility of taking up the story in 20 years. I'm counting the days.
Where Tony Scott paints an impressively seamy picture, Tarantino reinvents the canvas. His action scenes are beautiful, acrobatic, hilarious, playfully artificial. The characters for whom such combat is a self-sufficient ritual are all uniquely memorable. Each sequence is a spurting Valentine to the film genres that rock Tarantino's world, and each rewards multiple viewings; no matter how many times I watch the "Kill Bill" saga, it never fails to rock my world.