Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Director : Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay : Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Uma Thurman (The Bride), David Carradine (Bill), Lucy Liu (O-Ren Ishi, aka Cottonmouth), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver, aka California Mountain Snake), Vivica A. Fox (Vernita Green, aka Copperhead), Michael Madsen (Budd, aka Sidewinder), Michael Parks (Sheriff), Sonny Chiba (Hattori Hanzo), Chiaki Kuriyama (Go Go Yubari), Julie Dreyfus (Sofie Fatale)
For the past few months, the trailer has promised us that, “In the year 2003, Uma Thurman will Kill Bill.” It turns out that won’t be the case because, as is now widely known, Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino’s expansive, ambitious grindhouse homage, his first film in six years, has been split into two parts, Volume 1 and Volume 2, the latter of which won’t bow in theaters until next year. Tarantino insists that the last-minute chopping of his film was a creative decision; common sense suggests that it was a purely market-driven decision, as two shorter films mean more screenings per day and it forces viewers to pay twice for what they otherwise would have only paid once.
Regardless of intent, we are left at this point with Kill Bill: Volume 1, which, on its own, is gloriously over-the-top, shamelessly shallow kung-fun revenge flick. Perhaps there is more depth to be had in Volume 2, but Volume 1 gives us little more than a basic narrative set-up and a series of gory action set pieces that are among some of the most creative and vivacious of recent cinema. With its heady adoption of the style and tone of the “wuxia” (early 1970s Chinese kung-fu films) mixed with Tarantino’s exuberant pop fanaticism, it’s a visual feast for film geek eyes. By reclaiming the style and aesthetic forms of classic kung-fu films, particularly those starring Sonny Chiba, Tarantino has effectively wrestled action away from the digitized present and reminds us that real stunts and clever editing are ultimately more exhilarating than all the CGI in the world.
The movie’s plot, while told in Tarantino’s signature garbled, nonlinear style, is deceptively simple: A woman known only as The Bride (Uma Thurman) seeks revenge on the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), led by the eponymous Bill (David Carradine), who massacred her wedding party and left her for dead with a bullet in her brain. In the process, they also killed her unborn child, and the one moment of pure, heartrending emotion in the movie is when The Bride wakes up from her coma, feels her flat stomach, and begins to weep uncontrollably when she realizes what has happened.
Thus, she sets off on a mission of vengeance with the intention of killing every member of the DiVAS (whose snake-oriented nicknames and largely female contingent remind one of the fictional “Fox Force Five” TV show Uma Thurman’s character talked about in Pulp Fiction). In Volume 1, she takes out two of them: Vernita Green, aka Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), has become a suburban soccer mom by the time The Bride tracks her down. They engage in a vicious knife duel in the middle of the living room, interrupted only when Copperhead’s four-year-old daughter comes home from school. The next target (which is actually the first in a strict chronological sense, but is depicted in the movie after the Copperhead fight) is O-Ren Ishi, aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu), who is now the head of the Tokyo criminal underworld.
Tarantino spends a good third of the movie on O-Ren Ishi, even depicting her violent childhood in a stunning anime sequence that shows how she came to be Japan’s most deadly assassin by the time she was 20. This portion of the film involves The Bride traveling to Osaka to meet with Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba in a delicious cameo), Japan’s most skilled (and now retired) sword maker. Hanzo crafts for her the ultimate in “Japanese steel,” an elegant samurai sword about which he says, “Without ego, I can say this is the finest sword I have ever made.” The Bride puts it to good use in the movie’s most elaborately staged fight sequence, which takes place in an open, two-level restaurant and involves The Bride taking on the entire contingent of O-Ren Ishi’s bodyguards. The Bride hacks and slashes and dismembers all of them, and the scene suffers only for switching to black and white, a move that clearly seems to have been done in order to reduce the colorful carnage and avoid an NC-17 rating.
The violence throughout Kill Bill is gory and graphic, but it’s done in the style of old kung-fu films and has a giddy, cartoonish quality. When O-Ren Ishi decapitates a yakuza don for daring to bring up her mixed Chinese-Japanese-American ancestry, his neck spews so much fake blood that it’s deliriously funny. Some of the violence, however, is treated with more gravity, particularly the scene in which The Bride discovers that a sicko orderly has been selling her body for sex while she was in a coma, and slices the back his Achilles tendon and then repeatedly slams his head with a metal door. The anime flashback of O-Ren Ishi’s childhood is also disturbing in the intensity of its violence, which may be why it was done in animation, rather than live action. This, once again, points up the almost limitless variety how violence can be imagined on-screen and also Tarantino’s prankish skills at being able to contain so many of them in a single movie.
While Tarantino is obviously emulating such filmmakers as Cheh Chang and The Shaw Brothers in making this ultraviolent revenge fantasy, the filmmaker he really brings to mind is Stanley Kubrick. Although they are polar opposites in the material they choose for their films and the style of their filmmaking, the gradually lengthening time between Tarantino’s projects (it was two years between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, three years between Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and six years between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) and his increasingly ambitious ideas, lengthy and overbudget productions, and devotion to personal obsessions mark him as decidedly Kubrickian. Kill Bill is, of course, anything but Kubrickian, but for those who can appreciate Tarantino’s wild sensibilities and his lavish evocation of the kind of colorful cult cinema that is all but extinct today, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a giddy, gory, beautifully mounted trash spectacle … at least so far.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick