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Bound (1996)


Cinema’s Tarantino hangover lasted well into the late-90s. The glut of crime movies featuring snappy dialogue, lurid situations, and balletic carnage stalled out a few years later, after Quentin Tarantino himself moved on to more ambitious projects. But in the immediate aftermath of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Hollywood was awash with gritty indie sensibilities that studio execs hoped could rake in mainstream profits.

It was a dark time. A Xerox of a Xerox, as they say, is never quite as pristine as the original, and that’s certainly the case with the dozens of QT knock-offs, wherein a group of colorful killers finds themselves in a Mexican standoff after some jumbled-timeline narrative centered on retrieving/dodging a Maguffin. This phenomenon wasn’t exclusive to dramas, of course: the monster success of Wes Craven’s Scream gave birth to myriad sequels and imitators, and Kevin Smith’s brand of brainy, foul-mouthed slackers created a pop-comedy zeitgeist.*

For me, the Tarantino/Craven/Smith trinity was enough sustenance for the decade. I peeked in on the copycats every once in awhile, but for every Out of Sight, there seemed to be eight Eight Heads in a Duffle Bag--which is why it took me twenty-two years to finally watch Andy and Larry Wachowski’s** Bound.

When The Matrix blew up in 1999, three years after Bound’s release, it’s quite possible that a lot of newly minted Wachowski devotees revisited (or visited) their debut film. I did not. The idea of going from a heady, sci-fi techno adventure to a low-budget, love-triangle-with-guns didn’t appeal to me--no matter how loudly the critical community raved about the performances, the techniques, the endless etceteras. I was a dumb twenty-something, what can I say?

Bound stars Jennifer Tilly as Violet, the disaffected girlfriend of a mid-level Chicago gangster named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Corky (Gina Gershon) is an ex-con who lands a job as the maintenance person in their building. After a brief but meaningful encounter in an elevator, the women begin a physical affair that quickly becomes something else. Violet has grown tired of her semi-lavish lifestyle, which Caesar affords her by occasionally torturing a debt-dodger in their bathroom. Corky, it seems, has never been in a relationship past the dive-bar-hook-up stage. In short order, the women hatch a plan to rob Caesar’s boss, Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian), of two million dollars--and pin the theft on Caesar.

Matters spin out of control, of course, and the Wachowski’s (in very Tarantino fashion) keep the audience on their toes by jumping back and forth through time; sexing up the violence to perhaps heretofore unimagined degrees; and introducing new characters who span the “menace” spectrum from bottled-up (see John P. Ryan’s high-level Marzzone enforcer) to goofily unhinged (see Christopher Meloni as Marzzone’s psychotic screw-up son, a wild-eyed, heir-to-the-throne airhead with a touch of Mr. Blonde). In 1996, a tame-by-modern-standards lesbian sex scene between Gerson and Tilly raised eyebrows and snapped ratings-board pencils clean in half, I’m sure. For my money, one of the most explicitly and perhaps unintentionally X-rated shots in movie history involves one Bound character splashing around in white paint against a dark floor as bullets rip apart his body.

As characters go, Bound doesn’t fall into the trap of false “zip” that Tarantino’s imitators often failed to capture in their dialogue--not exactly, anyway. The Wachowskis evoke hard-boiled 40s and 50s crime pictures more than anything else, with their classic mobster-betrayal story and tough, breathy femmes fatale speaking as much with their eyes as with double-meaning-heavy dialogue. Which is fine. Gershon is undeniably cool here, but Tilly’s helium-noir delivery is more often distracting than not.

No, the hardest-working characters in Bound are mood and choreography. On a dime, the story’s mob elements come rushing to the fore, and we get to see Caesar for the desperate, ruthless thug he is. As the Wachowskis shift their gaze from Violet and Corky’s secret courtship to the husband’s stolen-money cover-up, any questions as to why Violet was so eager to escape vanish immediately.

It’s not just that Caesar is an insane jerk, it’s that he’s so beholden to a cadre of homicidal insane jerks that he’ll stay up for twenty-four hours procuring, scrubbing, and clothesline-drying more than two million dollars worth of blood-splattered bills in his suite, and make his beleaguered wife watch. Violet appreciates Corky’s rough-edged compassion and sees in her a resilience that she has rarely observed in any man. Violet’s confidence in her new relationship grows in direct proportion to Caesar’s anxiety about being framed for stealing the money; his actions grow darker and more desperate by the hour and in the end the women are left with no choice but to upend their reality in order to survive.

For reasons that would become obvious later, the Wachowskis are obsessed with secret identities. Their stories are marked by societies that force heroic figures into hiding, whether due to robot uprising, corrupt race-car mega-corporations, or garbage bags full of mafia cash. It started with Bound, and though you can see the seeds of bullet time and digitally enhanced geographic trickery here, the stylistic flourishes that would contribute to the siblings’ success take a back seat to the powerful emotions screaming to be heard beneath the pulse-pounding confrontations and intricate set dressing.

If time travel ever becomes a thing, please do not, under any circumstances, share this review with my nineteen-year-old self--especially not the following confession: I’ve got to give the Wachowskis an edge over Tarantino. What Bound gets right about crime as a genre is that it works best when there are real stakes, real emotions, involved. Sure it’s fun to argue over whether Mr. Pink survived; or speculate about the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase; and there’s no denying that Natural Born Killers (which Tarantino wrote and Oliver Stone directed) is still a relevant and shockingly effective concept nearly a quarter-century on. But I never cared about those characters to the degree that I hoped Violet and Corky were A) being true to one another and B) would get the chance to explore their relationship in a world that was not yet ready to deal with it.

Strike the first part of that last paragraph. Go ahead and show the teenage “me” this review (right after you kill Hitler and invest in Facebook). He’ll be upset. But at least he’ll have no choice but to go watch Bound.

*Feel free to place a psychic asterisk next to Mallrats, if you wish.

**In the decades since, the Wachowskis have transitioned from male to female, and have assumed different names. Until a few years ago, the siblings were referred to alternately as “Andy and Larry Wachowski” or “The Wachowski Brothers” or, simply “The Wachowskis”. I’m not one hundred percent (or even one-hundredth of one hundred percent, which is to say, I guess, one percent) sure of how best to refer to the filmmakers’ gender at the time they made this movie. At the time, Lana Wachowski didn’t co-create Bound; that was Larry. But was Larry always Lana? That’s not for me to say. To avoid confusion, I will simply call the filmmakers by their collective name, “The Wachowskis” moving forward.

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