Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill is a two-part "movie-movie" that tells one story yet begs to be considered separately of its two films, not simply because the they project largely different moods but because each is such an orgiastic display of obscure film knowledge that even a reviewer who largely does not recognize and identify the majority of the references to Western and Eastern cinema outside of broad genre familiarity (such as this reviewer) cannot hope to contain the films' sheer sense of mimetic revelry in one review.
Of the two, Vol. 1 is the more audacious: who else but Tarantino would dare to open his film with a stark black-and-white shot of a pregnant woman begging for her life, then jump from that scene and the somber opening credits to a brightly lit, dazzlingly quaint suburb where two hot chicks engage in a kung fu fight straight out of an exploitation movie? Yes, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a film that announces that it's style over substance from the start, one built on a story of vengeance that affords more emotional weight to a samurai sword than the plight of its wronged heroine (in this installment at least).
The style, though speaks for itself. Vol. 1 is, quite possibly, the most immaculately composed action movie since Kurosawa's Yojimbo or High and Low. Even as someone whose understanding of visual composition extends only so far as a loose grasp on the rule of thirds (which this film helped me learn), I stand mesmerized by Tarantino's acuity.
Good thing, too, as it keeps me from focusing too deeply on the plot. Tarantino, of course, tells the story out of order, so we meet The Bride (Uma Thurman) when she's beaten to a pulp and awaiting the worst. She only has time to tell her tormentor, "Bill, it's your baby" before she's shot in the head and sent into a coma. Then we leap four years into the future as she tracks down one of the people of her old squad of assassins who betrayed her. The woman, Jeannie Bell a.k.a.Vernita Green a.k.a. "Copperhead" (Vivica A. Fox), a colleague in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, is not the first name on The Bride's list, we later learn, and Tarantino eventually doubles back to cover that as well.
Where the non-linear storytelling of Pulp Fiction added a degree of excitement to its freewheeling joy, the temporal distortion of Kill Bill is more an affectation, a holdover from the writer-director's apparent need to live by Jean-Luc Godard's maxim, "A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end...but not necessarily in that order." Vol. 1's structure exists, it would seem, to ensure that the final, more outlandish, fight occurs at the end of the film rather than its chronologically appropriate time before the shorter duel between Copperhead and The Bride (once code-named "Black Mamba"). Couldn't Tarantino have simply written the film so the less epic fight came first? Well, perhaps not, as Vol. 2 shows the fights growing increasingly anticlimactic (more on that later).
Of course, if the film's temporal structure is nothing more than an affectation, it certainly doesn't stand out against the rest of the film. One can defend his Death Proof primarily on the grounds that "it's supposed to be cheesy and dull," an argument built on sand but largely true, as Tarantino is so loyal to his beloved B-movies that he would design a film to deliberately ape their banal segments as well as their exciting ones. You see the first traces of it here, though Vol. 1 is anything but boring: after adding his own voice to Elmore Leonard's work in adapting Rum Punch into Jackie Brown, Tarantino here filters his unique voice through the sieves of Chinese wuxia and Japanese yakuza flicks, jidai-geki and kung fu; thus, characters spit out hilariously stilted dialogue focused solely on warrior codes of honor, vengeance and purity: ex-Viper O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), a half-Japanese half-Chinese woman born and raised on an American military base, climbs to the top of the Yakuza power ladder, she only expresses rage when one chauvinistic, xenophobic lieutenant decries her mixed blood ("expresses rage" might be too soft a phrasing to communicate the severing of a head).
For those who wish to catalog the specific spoken and visual references, godspeed. Vol. 1 takes Pulp Fiction and snorts Vincent's prime heroin, resulting in a bloody, foaming frenzy of film quotation. The most obvious form of genre reverence is easily witnessed in the casting of Sonny Chiba, king of the Japanese martial arts films, as Muramasa-esque master bladesmith Hattori Hanzŏ, a character itself named for the real-life ninja Chiba played in Shadow Warriors. The plot itself, of a woman exacting revenge for the death of her family, comes from a 1973 Japanese film Lady Snowblood. Those with time to kill might enjoy perusing an unofficial list of the various films and television shows references and marveling at the obscurity of some of his choices.
This mimetic orgy more or less allows Tarantino to get away with murder. Critics have accused the director of glorifying violence from the on-set of his career, but Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown largely alluded to the violence. Even the infamous ear scene in Dogs was blocked from our view by the assailant. Tarantino's movies, including his recent Basterds, create the illusion of gratuitous violence by teasing out situations with suspense that is practically, well, not Hitchcockian, as it relies on strength of character; where Hitch drew us in with the ominous threat of some device, Tarantino uses his loquaciousness to make us give a damn about these characters and to hang on every threatening word. When violence at last erupts, it's brief and brutal, occasionally funny in a gallows way but even in those situations carrying an undercurrent of vicious finality.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 doesn't much give a damn about that; after suffering the abuses of misrepresenting critics for years, he finally decided to become what they'd always cast him as and absolutely let loose.Tarantino takes the so-called "blood explosion" from the end of Kurosawa's Sanjuro and uses it for every severed appendage -- and oh boy are there a lot of them. Refusing to use CGI, QT uses the wire works that made a return to prominence with the Matrix films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for all the skill of the choreography, the violence is decidedly campy. People fly through the air after receiving a normal punch or lose arms in comedic fashions; Vol. 1 presents all the violence Tarantino supposedly injected into all of his films, but it's so absurd that the swifter kills of his other films maintain a severity and an unsettling feeling where this is just the hyperviolent equivalent of a sugar rush. Even in a film as unsubtle and meaningless as this, Tarantino's sly enough to make the film's animated segment its least cartoonish part.
The House of Blue Leaves showdown in particular stands as a hallmark of contemporary action sequencing even if it's all one big joke. The prolonged fight with the Crazy 88 is a madcap free-for-all as wildly visceral and unhinged as it is meticulously crafted. Before the fight breaks out, Tarantino's camera roams the restaurant as if searching for the action, but in his Scorsesian tracking shots he builds a mood of tension simply by breaking from The Bride's POV for a few minutes. In Uma Thurman's tall, powerful presence we feel safe, but Tarantino turns the patrons and employees of the restaurant all into devices because by following them we assume that they will soon prove important. The actual fight is an exercise in formalism, using flawless editing, framing and mise-en-scène all while keeping our attention rooted in the action of the characters and not those behind the camera. Supposedly, the proposed conjoined version of the two films, dubbed "The Whole Bloody Affair," reinserts all the censored footage and plays in color (I guess the decision to film most of it in monochrome allowed it to pass the MPAA board, which for any other body would be the stupidest thing you could imagine them demanding but for them is something more akin to a typical Tuesday). Having seen the color version, which appeared in the Japanese release, I have to confess a certain fondness for the high contrast black-and-white that gives the OTT bloodbath a certain elegance.
Yet while that sequence works and works brilliantly, aspects of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 are trapped in the director's movie-movie euphoria. As with Spielberg and the Indiana Jones films, Tarantino is so loyal to the B-movies that inform his project that he also ports over some of the unfortunate racism of those movies; in one extraneous scene, a Japanese man with the most hideous fake buck teeth since Mickey Rooney offended his way into our hearts in Breakfast at Tiffany's accosts O-Ren's psychotic 17-year-old bodyguard Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama). Furthermore, the music selection, normally a Tarantino staple, is the weakest of his career. It's not that the music is bad, and indeed its broad sampling of the Green Hornet and Twisted Nerve themes along with contributions from the RZA, Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei, all-gal garage rock band The 18.104.22.168's and more is perfectly appropriate for a film that exists on the strength of its odd references. But where the music of his other films helps not only to create a world but invite the audience into it, here it's simply another part of the referencing.
Still, the worst thing I can say about Vol. 1 is that, compared to Tarantino's more substantive use of references and violence, it is merely a "fun" movie, an bizarre charge to level against a film and even more useless when you consider how absurdly enjoyable the film is. In The Bride we find the greatest example of a female character kicking butt with a blatantly phallic weapon since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And there is some depth when we reach the end, when The Bride emerges from her slaughter to face O-Ren and, without ever making it explicitly clear, the director lets us know that the two assassins used to be friends. Tarantino's non-linear structure finds its relevancy here, as we see the first emotional consequence of The Bride's quest for vengeance, followed by a reminiscence of The Bride's time with Hanzŏ, where he gives her his final sword with a warning: "Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest. And like a forest it's easy to lose your way, to get lost, to forget where you came in." With this line, juxtaposed harshly against the cartoony glee of the preceding bloodbath, Tarantino sets the stage for a more mature rumination on the theme of revenge, one that he would explore not only in the film's next chapter but in his most recent opus.