WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
So here we have it—the first part of Quentin Tarantino's wiz-bang, blood-drenched, over-the-top Hong Kong samurai homage, Kill Bill Volume 1. Dubbed self-importantly "the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino" (and, somewhat confusingly, Volume 2 will be labeled "the fifth film"), Kill Bill Volume 1 is a wild, allusion-crammed cartoon of a movie, filled with gore and smirks—but it really is only half a film. Arriving days before Tarantino's Kill Bill vision will be completed in the highly anticipated Volume 2, this DVD of Volume 1 comes at a perfect time for us to finally appreciate this crazy revenge epic in its full, intended scope.
However, despite the timeliness and convenience of the Kill Bill film/DVD release schedule, you might pause before buying this DVD of Volume 1. You might rightfully wonder about the future of Kill Bill on DVD. Surely, we're destined to see a comprehensive DVD set of the entire epic at some later date, perhaps even before Christmas of this year. Should you bother picking up what amounts to a barebones DVD release of half a movie? Will we even see a standalone version of Volume 2? Or will the inevitable comprehensive set eclipse any potential standalone Volume 2 disc? If that's the case, won't this standalone Volume 1 disc look awfully silly and pointless next to that set? These are questions I'd be considering if I didn't have this review copy in hand. I might think back to the decidedly odd decision to split Kill Bill into two parts in the first place. The cynical part of me would decry the move as a blatant cash grab and call this double-punch of DVD/movie release just more of the same. But then the forgiving part of me steps in and admits that even as a singular film, Kill Bill Volume 1 is a hell of a fun, frothy ride—and it's worth owning in the interim.
It was with great giddiness that I welcomed Quentin Tarantino back to a theater near me, back in October 2003. Devouring prerelease gossip and teaser trailers, I prepared myself for a heavy dose of uber-Tarantino—a splashy, somewhat insane pastiche of genre clichés and oversaturated panache—and oh, did I get it. Kill Bill Volume 1 is a big ol' blast of style, curiously empty in the middle, but damn if it isn't one of the coolest movies you're likely to see. The film is a marvel of outrageous violence and black humor, and of clumsy and pretentious dialog that somehow works. If Kill Bill isn't necessarily Tarantino at the top of his game, it is surely Tarantino having a kick-ass good time. You can practically see his look of glee behind the camera.
An idea that has its roots way back on the set of Pulp Fiction (when Tarantino would whisper to Mia Wallace, "Uma Thurman is gonna kill Bill"), Kill Bill is an unlikely success. Somewhat archly, and even awkwardly, it follows the story of the blood-spattered Bride (Uma Thurman), who was left for dead, four years earlier in an El Paso chapel, by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which she was once a member. After waking from a coma and regathering her strength, the Bride embarks on what the movie advertisements call a roaring rampage of revenge, in which she will exact her fury on her former partners—O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and the eponymous Bill (David Carradine).
In Volume 1, we witness only the first half of her furious quest, and, in typical Tarantino style, it's imparted in fragments and flashbacks and flashforwards. We see a brutal suburban confrontation with Vernita, as well as an extended Okinawa sequence with master Samurai sword craftsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba). Perhaps the most potent element of the film is the specter of O-Ren Ishii, about whom we learn extensive background in the form of a savage anime sequence. It's this kind of style decision that makes the film unpredictable and exciting—not to mention the inclusion of an outrageously choreographed, over-the-top fight sequence in Ishii's fortress that pits the Bride against a legion of expert swordsmen. It's a bunch of comic-book hooey, but you find yourself cheering and grinning through the whole bloody thing.
What an odd amalgam of visual styles this movie contains! His head filled with influences coming from myriad directions, Tarantino has let it all bleed out onto the screen. You get inventive split-screens, lurid filters, whip pans, wild crane shots, slow motion, and even black-and-white photography. (Wait, black-and-white? Yes, apparently bowing to perceived MPAA censors, Tarantino has cast a few long minutes of the climactic swordfight scene at Ishii's place in black-and-white. That's just for us sensitive Americans, you know. In Japan, for example, the sequence is in glorious, blood-drenched color, but Tarantino understood the MPAA's jittery sensibilities and decided to sidestep an almost guaranteed NC-17 rating. Unfortunately, this DVD doesn't reinstate the sequence in color. In spite of that frustration, the scene does still work. Except that the similarly two-tone sequence that immediately follows upstairs has the same visual effect and makes the black-and-white sequence stylistically redundant. But I digress.)
Kill Bill Volume 1 is, in the end, an unapologetic orgy of gore and style, of indulgence and fun. Tarantino has cobbled together a great tapestry of cool strangeness—grindhouse, yakuza, samurai, anime, spaghetti western, Italian horror, De Palma cheese—straight from his brain to the screen, and he's stitched it all together into a smartly choreographed, slipshod-paced silver bullet that'll just slay you. It's probably best that you don't look too closely at this marvelous contraption. When you do, you see that Tarantino has perhaps indulged himself a bit too often, and the more questionable scenes—the ones that linger too long, the ones that smirk a little too noticeably—start to bug you. I recommend just sitting back and letting the film wash over you, redly and somewhat stickily.
When the end of Kill Bill Volume 1 comes, you die a little death knowing you have to wait for Volume 2. (This was especially the case way back in October.) At least in the opinion of this reviewer, Kill Bill Volume 1 isn't entirely successful as one film. It needs its second half. I would even say that this review is incomplete until we see Volume 2. Well, now the needless wait is over. Let's see how the tale ends.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents Kill Bill Volume 1 in an anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. As much as I wanted to love this transfer, it doesn't achieve the spectacular sharpness and crystal detail that the film deserves. It suffers from a distinct softness, much to my dismay, even in close-ups. (Some scenes seem softer than others. Detail in the final fight scene is finer, for example, than detail in the Sonny Chiba sequences. But clarity could be improved throughout.) Backgrounds, unfortunately, are even more problematic. Another fault of the transfer is noticeable edge halos.
But those are the only faults of an otherwise terrific presentation. They're big faults, and difficult to overcome, but this transfer does the best it can. Colors are out of this world, rich and gorgeous and accurate. Just as vivid and decadent as you would expect and even hope for. Skin tones are right on, coming across with a natural depth. Black levels and shadow detail are just fine.
Watching the film is a frustrating experience, because it's so close to great. I hope Buena Vista springs for a brand-new, more detailed transfer when it comes time to create that inevitable comprehensive set.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers two fine surround presentations: a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. There's very little difference between the two. Both offer aggressive and dynamic surround presentations, creatively swirling and clanging and pounding. Panning of such effects as whickering swords and bloodsprays will bring a smile to your face as the movie surrounds you, as if effortlessly. Bass is powerful, although I noticed a few instances of distortion at severe pounding, such as when Uma's body falls to the floor in the first fight scene.
Best of all, the score translates splendidly for the home theater. Musical elements are essential to all of Tarantino's films, and it's almost as if special attention has been paid to the music here, letting it live and breathe with a life all its own. Equal attention has been paid to sound effects, such as the sheathing of a sword, the ricochet of bullets, and the wings of a mosquito.
It's a better, more detailed effort than that of the image.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
In light of the inevitable comprehensive DVD release, this DVD is very sparse on supplements. Primary among them is a full-screen 22-minute featurette titled The Making of Kill Bill. This piece isn't quite the EPK it seems at first to be. With talking-head contributions from Quentin Tarantino, producer Lawrence Bender, Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Viveca A. Fox, and Darryl Hannah, it actually has some depth. Most interestingly, Tarantino talks about his influences, and the origins of his ideas. He talks about the importance of '70s grindhouse cinema, yakuza, and Spaghetti Westerns. We even get to see scenes from some of these source films, and they're quite illuminating. Tarantino also talks about the importance of music in the film, and how he stumbled on some of the tracks. There's also a little bit on the shooting of the film in Beijing.
Next, you get performance footage (on the set, apparently) of the Japanese music act featured in the film. "5, 6, 7, 8's" perform "I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield" and "I'm Blue" is about 5 minutes long and tiresome because of its static imagery.
Finally, Tarantino Trailers gives you non-anamorphic widescreen and full-screen trailers that include Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 1 Teaser, Kill Bill Volume 1 Bootleg Trailer, and Kill Bill Volume 2 Teaser.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A spectacular joyride of a half-film, Kill Bill Volume 1 is a definite oddity on DVD. Feeling more incomplete than ever, now that we're so close to the release of its second half, the film kinda seems to just sit there on DVD. Buena Vista's nearly barebones treatment should give you pause. Is this release worth picking up? Barely—at least, when you consider, as mentioned above, the inevitable 3- or 4-disc set. But how will you be able to deny the impulse to purchase this DVD? The movie is that much fun, and imminently rewatchable. Beware, though: The image quality is a bit of a bummer, particularly on large screens.