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Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 10 October 2003
It's been a long time since Quentin Tarantino's last movie, "Jackie Brown," and to the surprise of reviewers everywhere, he's gone galloping off in an entirely new direction. Directors such as John Landis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and others were inspired by the movies of their childhoods, and so is Tarantino. But he's recalling movies of the 1970s that were even more disreputable than those the earlier filmmakers were saluting.

"Kill Bill" is a surprisingly graceful and loving tribute to, fond imitation of, and slight spoof of the mostly Asian action films of that period which tended to play in second-rate theaters, at drive ins and on late night TV. Those were violent movies, with plots driven by revenge and characters who were often martial-arts assassins, gangsters or both. They were tough and direct to the point of self-parody, and were ignored by most critics and the vast majority of moviegoers.

But they were the stuff of life for Quentin Tarantino. Not only did he see them in theaters, but as they gradually came out on video, his position as a video store clerk made them even more accessible.

The result is the astonishing "Kill Bill." Much to the dismay of Miramax, the movie went way over budget and schedule, winding up so long it's been divided into two parts. "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is in release now, and "Vol. 2" will be out in February.

Is it worth seeing? Good question. I loved it, but if you aren't jazzed by stylish, even cartoonish violence, avoid the movie. It's a dazzling display of filmmaking virtuosity; Tarantino may be the most impressively talented director since the advent of Steven Spielberg. But he's far more brash and enthusiastic about his loves than even Spielberg has been -- and he loves very different stuff.

I won't begin to outline the films that influenced him; I've seen very few of them (other than "Hannie Caulder" and "Master of the Flying Guillotine"), but there are websites aplenty where this information can be found. Some film buffs (or maybe geeks) became furious with Tarantino over his tendency to borrow plot or other elements from earlier films, such as the way "Reservoir Dogs" echoes part of the Hong Kong movie "City on Fire." Others shrug -- moviemakers have done this sort of thing since 1900; Tarantino's just more blatant about it. (You can find an interview with Tarantino in which he lists some of his inspirations at

But he weaves his stuff together in ways so refreshing and new that it verges on a new kind of originality.
The story is reasonably direct, though at the beginning, there's some jumping around in time. Basically, it centers on a young woman (Uma Thurman) whose name we never know, though in the gang of assassins she belonged to she was "Black Mamba." The credits just refer to her as "The Bride." She (barely) survived slaughter at her wedding; her husband, her friends, even her unborn child were murdered, while she went into a coma.

Four years later, she revives, full of ice-cold rage and an implacable desire for revenge. She makes a list of those she knows participated in the attack, and though they were once her friends, begins seeking them out one by one.

The first is Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), once "Copperhead" and now a mother. When The Bride arrives at the suburban Green home, they immediately launch into the first of many fights in the movie. There's a jaw-dropping sequence when Vernita's small daughter arrives and the combatants put their battle on hold for a moment.

After this, The Bride flies to Okinawa, where she goes to a small sushi shop with an affable owner (Sonny Chiba). He's stunned when she says she's looking for Hattori Hanzo (a character Chiba played in a Japanese TV series), for he thought he had evaded that name forever. He's a master swordsmaker, and when she reveals that her ultimate goal is Bill (David Carradine), he offers her one of his swords.

Then it's off to the main island of Japan, in search of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), once Cottonmouth, now a powerful yakuza chief. In another stunt, which works perfectly, Tarantino depicts her background as a stylish Japanese anime -- animated cartoon.

Finally, there is a showdown between The Bride and O-Ren's forces, a mob of black-suited, Kato-masked swordsmen known as the Crazy 88. This battle takes place in a nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, and is the action high point of the film. It's also impressively violent and gory, so much so that to get an R, Tarantino had to print most of this sequence in black and white.

Action scenes did not dominate "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" or "Jackie Brown;" they did have rich, quotable dialog. But "Kill Bill" is primarily action, and the dialog is pared down to the bare minimum. And yet Tarantino shows how to handle this as well. These days, most American action films are edited into tiny, jittery fragments, destroying their excitement value and eliminating any pictorial stylishness. Tarantino often allows action scenes to play for some time without cutting, and when he does use cutting, it's very rhythmic, carrying the excitement, tension and beauty from one shot to another. The movie is extremely fluid; the degree of violence makes it jarring, but it's not disturbing in terms of cinematic technique.

It's a masterwork of style, reminiscent of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in its respectful repeating of ideas and themes from earlier movies, including a touch of affectionate parody. (The movie opens with a "Shaw Scope" title card, and an old "And now for our feature presentation" trailer, clues that what follows is not to be taken entirely seriously.) The kinds of movies it's paying tribute to, of course, are very different from those "Raiders" was tipping the fedora to, but the affection, the desire to emulate the best, most exciting elements of the older films, is just as strong and honorable in "Kill Bill."

The characterization tends to be thin and broad, but the actors are outstanding in this context, particularly Thurman and Liu (both of whom speak Japanese in the movie). Michael Banks makes an unexpected appearance as a good-ol'-boy Texas sheriff, Daryl Hannah is another stylish assassin with one eye (disguised as a nurse, her patch has a red cross), Michael Madsen and the only glimpsed David Carradine will undoubtedly have larger roles in the follow-up.
The movie is, technically, far more impressive than the movies it refers to and/or is based on. Robert Richardson's wide-screen cinematography is exceptionally good, and the use of color is highly imaginative. One battle scene takes place with the combatants silhouetted against a vivid blue backdrop. And important fight takes place in a formal Japanese garden covered in snow. The music includes themese from spaghetti Westerns, Hong Kong action films, even American TV shows (like "Ironside"). Sometimes the music is cut off in mid-phrase. The sound is equally unrealistic, equally imaginative. This was a big-scale, expensive movie (much of it was shot in China) that is a synthesis of cheap movies.

This is not a realistic movie; The Bride not only takes her sword on a plane with her, but everyone else on the plane has a sword, too. There are even seat-side scabbards. It's bigger, grander and more grisly than real life.

Some will complain that this is a big, expensive tribute to junky movies, just as they did with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and other such films. But that's beside the point -- those older films weren't really junky, just aimed at a grindhouse audience. Often the Japanese and Hong Kong directors Tarantino loved really were professional and talented. They honed themselves on the thin plots and repetitious action, producing more often great sequences than great movies. That's not quite what Tarantino has done here, partly because it is a tribute, but also because he rises above it all. The movie is more than an exercise in style, though lord knows it's that; Tarantino wants us to seek out the movies that inspired them, and share his love of those oddball, violent and colorful films.

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