Kill Bill - Vol. 1
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Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill - Vol. 1 begins with the Shaw Brothers logo emblazoned across the screen. Of course, Kill Bill isn't really a Shaw Brothers production; rather the logo is Tarantino's way of paying homage to one the great Hong Kong studios, which produced many of the great martial arts films of the '70s and '80s. In addition, the Shaw Brothers logo provides a clue of what is to come in Kill Bill.

Unlike the character-driven dramatics of Tarantino's first three films, Kill Bill instead opts for epic-length fight sequences. We still get some surprising developments along the way — as when Uma Thurman's fight to the death with Vivica A. Fox is interrupted by the arrival of a school bus and Fox's young daughter walks in on the battle (and the battle stops cold!), or when Thurman visits a sushi bar in Okinawa (run by the great Sonny Chiba!) and her attempt to engage the proprietor is periodically interrupted when he screams for his quarrelsome assistant to serve Thurman. In general, however, the dialogue in Kill Bill doesn't sing or bite like the dialogue in Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. This is a different type of movie altogether than Tarantino's previous work.

Here the plot is relatively simple — regardless of how Tarantino plays fast and loose with the chronology. Kill Bill is a revenge tale and the movie's title — as brief as it may be — tells the story; the movie is about Thurman's quest to kill a man named Bill who ordered her killed when she attempted to quit his assassination squad. On her wedding day, Bill and the remaining members of his squad massacred the entire wedding party and left the pregnant Thurman for dead. So now, as the movie's poster and tagline tells us, here comes the bride. It's a bit absurd that such a simple story would form the basis of a two-part action flick (the second volume will be released in early 2004) of approximately 200 minutes duration (assuming Vol. 2 is the same length as Vol. 1 — 100 minutes).

David Carradine plays the role of Bill, although we don't see much of him in Vol. 1. As Tarantino resurrected the career of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, here he pulls Carradine from the obscurity of direct-to-video action flicks and gives him a plumb role. And serving time as Bill's henchmen, you'll find Lucy Liu (whose background is played out in the form of an inspired anime sequence), Daryl Hannah (who plays a mean-ass, one-eyed nurse), Michael Madsen (more about him is certain to come in Vol. 2), and the aforementioned Vivica A. Fox.

Tarantino attempts to invigorate the well-worn material through his storytelling — in which he zeroes in on key moments and then magnifies their value by withholding key bits of information and later dropping that information in front of our noses to form minor epiphanies. At best, these moments provide joyful surprises — the playful cinematic revelations of a director who truly loves toying with the expectations of his audience. At worst, as when we learn why Uma Thurman is driving a truck with the words "Pussy Wagon" emblazoned on its tailgate, Tarantino veers toward bratty trivialities that cheapen his storytelling.

Tarantino wraps his B movie plot in some unusual characterizations and offbeat encounters, but Tarantino's audacious stylistic flourishes can't hide the movie's flimsiness. For my taste, the action scenes go on way too long. We all know Thurman must at the very least come very close to reaching her goal — or Tarantino quite literally doesn't have a movie. So unlike Pulp Fiction, for example, where Tarantino shocks us by eliminating a major character, or Reservoir Dogs, where it's hard to say who (if anyone) will ultimately survive, in Kill Bill, Thurman must survive until she faces off against Bill in Vol. 2. And therefore, some of the suspense immediately dissipates.

This predictability isn't necessarily a deficiency; you always know that James Bond or Indiana Jones, for example, will survive in their movies. Regardless of the outrageous peril they run into, there is never really any doubt that they will in fact survive the stunts. Rather it's a matter of style. It's a matter of whether the filmmakers/performers can consistently suck our jaws to the floor in disbelieve at the events flickering across the theater screen. On those terms does Tarantino succeed? Many people will answer "yes" with no reservations whatsoever. But your answer depends on your fondness for fight sequences. I found my patience waning — particularly during the gargantuan encounter between Thurman and an army of Lucy Liu's henchmen, staged in a Japanese tea house. With near supernatural skill, Thurman wields a samurai sword, taking on all comers and leaving body parts strewn across the floor. This movie is so gloriously over the top that it makes spaghetti westerns look tame in comparison. But Tarantino is a bit too enamored of his film footage and instead of editing his sequences so they hum, he allows the sequences to flirt with repetition. Yet with such marvelous footage, it's easy to see his quandary.

With Kill Bill, Tarantino makes his least substantial movie yet; however, his affection for the martial arts genre shines through. This isn't a spoof or a parody. Tarantino is very much working within the martial arts tradition. And his affection for the genre is contagious.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Miramax Pictures
Movie Web site: Kill Bill - Vol. 1



Photo credits: © 2003 Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.