Kill Bill Volume 1

By David Mumpower

October 9, 2003

Smell the sword acting.

Finally, there is a movie that will satisfy the bloodthirsty fans of Itchy and Scratchy, and its name is Kill Bill. Auteur Quentin Tarantino returns from a six-year sabbatical of over-the-top Alias guest villainy and binge drinking to demonstrate his usual flair for stylishly going against convention. The resulting creation is an unmistakable Tarantino film of impeccable quality with a violent streak unprecedented in the history of cinema. There are so many dismembered limbs in this movie that you will come away feeling like you have borne witness to the Gettysburg battle carnage created by Pickett’s Charge.

Kill Bill Volume 1 starts with a bang. Literally. Our heroine, whose identity is described only as The Bride, is shot in the head by a shrouded figure named Bill. Just before he attempts this execution, she blurts out that he is the father of her baby. He releases the trigger hammer anyway, thereby identifying himself as the bad guy (just in case you hadn’t figured that out from the title).

Like all super-villains, though, Bill has more than his share of henchmen (and henchwomen) who stand between The Bride and her pursuit of vindictive justice. This means that Bill is sight unseen for the entirety of Volume 1 while The Bride spends most of her time killing off the other four names on her Death List. She is presumably working her way up to the big boss fight we’ll get at the end of Volume 2, so the first half of the dualogy (yes, I’m making up words now) has a similar feel to a pro boxer’s career. She has to kill off a few ranked contenders before working her way up to the crime world’s answer to Apollo Creed.

While the storied troubles in getting this film edited to a working length would seem to be cause for thematic concern, splitting Kill Bill into two volumes nicely divides the first effort into three fluid acts. As has been the case with Tarantino’s previous outings, Kill Bill Volume 1 fractures time early and often but the resulting division of story is seamless and impacting. We start with The Bride’s pursuit of the second name on the list, Vernita Green (codename: Coppermouth). From there, the action returns to the date of the lead character’s betrayal some four and a half years before. The final act of the film involves The Bride’s infiltration of the yakuza crime ring in order to gain revenge on Cottonmouth herself, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). She has managed to overwhelm the rest of the high level thugs of Japan in order to attain the throne of villainy during the four years The Bride has been in a coma. Apparently, Bill is so tough that he can place a foreign devil at the top of the criminal food chain in Japan while still keeping his own name out of the papers.

Since the first half of the two film set is a bit light on the story side (Girl gets shot. Girl gets revenge on shooters.), it makes the action sequences and Tarantino touches all-the-more important in determining the overall enjoyment of the piece. For people who find his brand of quirky humor and violence off-putting, warning lights and sirens should be going off all over the place. As for myself, someone who didn’t care for Pulp Fiction but who loved Tarantino’s other two movies, this is great news. The QT affectations are shown off right from the start as the introductory credits have a distinctively retro 1970s feel, and this trend of well-known pop culture references and showy, rakish costume/set design meshes well together. The Bruce Lee-flavored jumpsuit Uma Thurman sports throughout the film is an especially nice touch. Also, the uncomfortable comedy quotient is utilized brilliantly in a sequence involving the awkward, unusual subjects of sexuality and comatose women. What is formed by all these classic Tarantino bits in combination is a visually and mentally stimulating series of comedic scenes and exaggerated martial arts segments choreographed by everybody’s favorite Chinese stunt director, Yuen Woo-Ping.

Particularly noteworthy is the already infamous Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves episode, as this 20-minute fight scene is as well thought out and entertaining as it is gory to the point of gruesome. If you are on the fence about cinematic violence, this extended celebration of dismemberment is probably going to be way too much for you. Our screening had several walk-outs, and all of them came during this segment. If you are not at all squeamish, though, what is left is a treat for the eyes as an unusually large number of combatants all get wailed on by a single woman with a very nice sword. It’s very rare in Cinema 2003 to see a scene that is clearly one for the ages, but this orgy of violence qualifies. Even more satisfying is the way the scene is ended on a humorous note then switched off to a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque one-on-one battle between equally beautiful, dangerous women in Cottonmouth and The Bride. After the frenetic action of The Bride vs. the yakuza, the laconic, deliberate pacing of the fighting between the two women is a masterstroke of direction.

The other aspect of Kill Bill Volume 1 that deserves special mention is the casting. Always a hallmark of Tarantino films, the choices here are truly inspired. The success of the movie hangs in the balance of Uma Thurman’s performance as a wronged woman seeking revenge. Somehow, though, she manages to reduce her ambience in such a fashion that the viewer is more naturally drawn to the other characters when they’re on camera. Vivica A. Fox drills her effort as an evil woman who has become a doting mother to her baby girl; Lucy Liu’s work as a naturally withdrawn woman with parental issues is sublimely measured in tone; and Battle Royale’s Chiaki Kuriyama makes a dazzling American movie debut as Go Go Yubari, a violent nihilist who steals the show in all her scenes. But the real casting coup that harkens back to Tarantino’s rediscovery of Robert Forster in Jackie Brown is the inclusion of Sonny Chiba, the original Hong Kong Street Fighter, as Hattori Hanzo. It’s his effort as a retired sword-maker that provides the gentle warmth of the movie. His quiet nobility and tortured remorse about his profession is one of my favorite performances of the year. I sincerely hope that the Academy notices it as well.

As a two-part film, it’s impossible to completely evaluate Kill Bill Volume 1 on its own prior to seeing the complete picture. What I have witnessed in the first 105 minutes is a thoroughly engaging, wildly entertaining trip into the psychotic mind of Quentin Tarantino. The six-year sabbatical has done nothing to dull the sharpness of his mental faculties, and his innate recognition of fresh and novel turns on the normal intricacies of a camera shot and movie dialogue are still in play. There are a few times when the movie is needlessly violent (huge surprise, I know), and there are a few regrettable moments that Tarantino’s natural desire to shock isn’t kept in check enough. If you find violence difficult to swallow, this is certainly not the movie for you. If you can get past that aspect of the film, though, Kill Bill Volume 1 is another instant classic from one of the most talented directors in the world today (even if he is a complete nutjob). Definitely one of the ten best films of the year.

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