Dir: Quentin Tarantino. US. 2003. 110 mins.
Kill Bill, the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino (as it is announced in the opening credits), continues the director's tradition of raiding other films, film-makers' styles and his own soundtrack collection. And like his three previous films, the result of his looting is a delirious cinematic confection which bears a signature all his own. Anchored by a bravura action performance by Uma Thurman, the first part of the two-parter Kill Bill is an exhilarating ride which leaves so much to resolve in Vol II that audiences satisfied with this taster will be unable to miss the denouement which arrives in US cinemas and most of the world on Feb 20, 2004. Miramax Films, which has already whipped up a storm of anticipation among Tarantino fans and beyond with its thrilling ad campaign for Kill Bill, can easily expect to surpass the $87m worldwide total of Jackie Brown in 1997/8 and might even come closer to the $220m taken by Pulp Fiction in 1994/5. And that's just with Vol I.
The film is relentlessly violent, but despite a couple of ugly moments which Tarantino can't resist, the violence here is cartoonish - a fact which could make it more palatable to female audiences who will also be turned on by the predominance of female characters. Nevertheless teenage boys and Tarantino junkies are still the key target audience, and the payback on the DVD versions (however many there may be) will be gigantic.
The cinematic influences in Kill Bill aren't so much hinted at as signposted with cheesy abandon by the exuberant Tarantino from the "Shaw Scope" card which he borrows from the old Shaw Brothers films to open the film or the casting of Japanese stars like Sonny Chiba who actually plays the same character (Hattori Hanzo) he played for years in the Shadow Warriors TV series. Indeed Kill Bill Vol I is more an homage to Japanese samurai movies than the Chinese kung fu pictures which will be referenced more heavily in Vol II. And not just samurai movies. A central flashback sequence in Vol I is composed of Japanese anime created by the animation studio Production IG which animated Ghost In The Shell.
Both parts owe debts to the mythology of spaghetti westerns from the showdowns to the score (Tarantino uses parts of an old score by Luis Bacalov from 1972 movie The Grand Duel). Critics will be itching to show off their knowledge by pointing out Tarantino's allusions in reviews of the film.
As for the story, Vol I is more action than explication and little is given away in its 10 marked chapters. All we are told is that The Bride (Thurman) is a pregnant woman who has been beaten senseless at her wedding in El Paso, Texas, by an evidently nasty character called Bill (played by Carradine, but not seen once on camera in Vol I) and his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad consisting of O'Ren Ishii aka Cottonmouth (Liu), Elle Driver aka California Mountain Snake (Hannah), Vernita Green aka Copperhead (Fox) and Budd aka Sidewinder (Madsen). The Bride herself was obviously once part of this group since her pseudonym is Black Mamba, but we are told nothing more of her history.
Instead, after showing her getting shot in the head by Bill, we switch to a sweet suburban house in Pasadena, California, four years later where The Bride confronts Vernita and engages her in mortal combat, finally killing her and leaving her dead body in front of her four year-old daughter.
Tarantino then returns to the aftermath of the wedding massacre where nine have been killed, but as the Sherriff (Parks) on the scene soon finds out, The Bride is still alive. She lies in a coma for four years and in that time is oblivious to a visit by Elle Driver who is planning to kill her but told by Bill to let her live at the last minute. Finally waking up as a man is attempting to rape her comatose body, The Bride escapes the hospital and swears her vengeance on the wedding killers.
At this point, The Bride leaves the US and arrives in Okinawa where she seeks out the now-retired assassin Hattori Hanzo to furnish her with a sword to kill Bill. Having secured a deadly weapon, she flies to Tokyo to confront the vicious O'Ren who has now become queen of the Tokyo underworld. Vol I ends with a 15-minute confrontation between The Bride and O'Ren and her army in the large nightclub/restaurant The House Of Blue Leaves. O'Ren's death actually occurs before the killing of Vernita, but then Tarantino has never cared much for linear storylines. The film ends with a revelation and hints of the conflicts to come in Vol II.
The fight sequences, choreographed, of course, by Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix films, Crouching Tiger, Iron Monkey, Legend of Drunken Master etc), are a blend of Samurai swordplay and Chinese martial arts and, as shot by Tarantino, are riveting and balletic to watch - a relief after the overuse of the form in bland Hollywood movies.
The violence therein, which includes numerous decapitations, de-limbings and gallons of blood, actually adds to the visual and kinetic splendour of these scenes. Tarantino also incorporates echoes between the anime sequence and the live action which only enhance the aesthetic balance of the picture. Then again, Tarantino has loaded the film with such myriad details that maybe a DVD (with a DVD commentary by the director) will be the best place ultimately to analyse the film.
The bifurcated nature of the saga will do it no favours at awards time since Academy voters are unlikely to take the first part of a genre picture like this seriously. It might have a second chance next year when Vol II opens and the scale and majesty of the undertaking can be appreciated in its entirety.
Prod co: A Band Apart. US dist: Miramax Films
Int'l sales: Miramax International
Exec prods: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Erica Steinberg, E Bennett Walsh
Prod: Lawrence Bender
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Prod des: Yohei Tanada (Japan/China), David Wasco (US/Mexico)
Ed: Sally Menke
Music: The RZA
Main cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A Fox, Michael Madsen, David Carradine, Michael Parks, Sonny Chiba, Chiaki Kuriyama, Julie Dreyfus, Gordon Liu