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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Kill Bill Vol 1.
Kill Bill Vol 1.
Miramax // R // October 9, 2003
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted October 13, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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After I saw Kill Bill Vol. 1 Friday, I got home and looked at my DVD's. I started to imagine a stack consisting of some Chang Cheh films like Chinese Super Ninjas, Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, I Spit on Your Grave, Coffy, Django and For a Few Dollars More, some giallos, and top it off with Lone Wolf and Cub- that pretty much would be the bible of films behind Kill Bill, an audacious homage to genre film styles. Being a genre film fan, I was ready to slaughter Tarantino if he failed or seriously stumbled with Kill Bill.

The story is a simple one. It is a revenge film. The pregnant Bride (Uma Thurman) is shot on her wedding day by Bill (a hinted/hidden David Carradine), her former boss and sire into the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Four years later she wakes up from a coma, realizes she has lost her baby, was rented out by a hospital orderly as a piece of defenseless fuck meat, and the only thing she has on her mind is vengeance on Bill and the rest of the assassin team: Cottonmouth, Copperhead, California Mountain Snake, and Sidewinder (Lucy Liu, Vivica A Fox, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen, respectively).

Style, ultimately, is the substance of the film. Deep character and plotting is secondary to the action and the visual and aural thrills. The film is told in chapters, beginning with the Bride's bloody, beaten face and Bill's last words to her before sending a bullet into her skull. Then the credits, then the Bride Vs. Copperhead (Fox) a sequence that takes place in a brightly and sunny suburban neighborhood, mid afternoon. It is an ugly knife fight in a middle class living room that sets the tone for the film. While brutal, it also has some casual asides and snappy banter that Tarantino is known for. And you get plenty, although sometimes in a stiffer, campy fashion, be it the sheriff's assessment of the wedding massacre or O-Ren's laying down the rules as the new yakuza crimelord.

The first actual frame of film in Kill Bill Vol 1 is the Shaw Bros logo and throughout the film is heavily peppered with references to genre classics. Daryl Hannah's character has an eyepatch, probably an obvious nod to the infamous rape revenge film They Call Her One Eye, and as she walks down a hospital hallway she whistles Bernard Herrmann's Twisted Nerve theme which the soundtrack eventually morphs into. Here we get Sonny Chiba playing another incarnation of the character he played on the Japanese tv series Shadow Warriors. If that doesn't give you a cult fan tingle in you special place, I don't know what could. Even as a fan of these films, it almost becomes an overload. Especially during the twenty minute fight finale, where the soundtrack goes from Spaghetti Western themes, to, briefly, the music from Master of the Flying Guillotine, and even some rockabilly, while the imagery is part kung fu and part samurai bloodbath. Add to that The Bride is wearing Bruce Lee's track suit from game of death, she fighting not only the girl from Battle Royale, but the Master Killer himself Gordon Liu in a Kato mask, and then goes toe-to-toe with the Lady Snowbloodish O-Ren Ishii/ Cottonmouth,... well my brain was almost fried just keeping up with the influence nods.

Now, I'll get to the bad. Much has been made of the film being split into two parts, a combination of Miramax and the Mouse's fear of losing money on a three plus hour action epic that went over schedule and over budget. I'm actually divided on it. On one hand, the film was always split into chapters and ends with a great teaser to the next film, perhaps the best sequel teaser since The Empire the Strike Back's - "Luke, I am you father." But, my urge to see what happens was strong. Although exhausted, I still wished I could turn around, go back in the theater, and watch the movie all over again with the finale. So, you are only getting half the story, and one assumes, half the character. The richness one comes to expect from Tarantino characters is largely missing, and Vol. 2 will surely offer the most fleshing out of The Bride and Bill. No, it isn't exactly the same universe as Tarantino's other films. This is exploitation, logic doesn't matter, coolness does, and basically the film is the set-up and the start of whittling down the Death List Five. Although the chapter plotting does split up the film into parts that work better than others, losing some fluidity, there is enough of the trademark Tarantino banter and winks, his double combo punch of using image and soundtrack, and a great, previously unseen, eye for action that makes the film a pure piece of thin, yet visceral, cinematic fun.

If you are an actress, you often have to be either lovelorn, suicidal, or a dying character to get Oscar. Too bad for Uma that striking a good stance and pulling off good sword blocks doesn't gain as many accolades as lying on a death bed and sweetly smiling. Uma truly delivers in a role that had to be extremely demanding physically and very time consuming.

Kill Bill is the product of a big incestuous cinematic beast. Especially in these modern times and the information age, no one is born as this pure, completely unique creative vessel. No, I think we are born with tastes veering in certain areas and depending on how you grow and what you are exposed to, you find what you like and it informs your own creativity. Scorsese acknowledges guys like De Sica, Nicholas Ray, Rossellini, and Wilder, whereas Tarantino gushes over Di Leo, Chang Cheh, Fulci, Jack Hill, and Jack Starrett. With Kill Bill Tarantino is more than ever consciously aping and paying reverence to the films 60's and 70's exploitation geeks devour. Some purists may damn him for it, but I found Kill Bill to be extremely entertaining. Being a revenge film seeped in so many genres and conceived, essentially, in a gimmick fashion, Kill Bill loses some of it's extreme edge, but it is still a lot of fun. Also, deep down in my heart, I cannot help but highly respect anyone who employs classic genre stars like Gordon Liu and Streetfighter, Golgo 13's Sonny Chiba, who both get nice, big typeface in the credits. Tarantino, like (but more extreme than) the Coen Bros., Sam Raimi, John Waters, Luc Besson, or Chistopher Gans, makes a film very conscious of its various influences. Kill Bill is a love letter and an interesting animal on its own, a chimera made of many different creatures, a work of grindhouse entertainment worthy of genre fans moviegoing dollar.

How does this film measure up in the Tarantino resume? I think it is something he had to get out of his system and really aim for the grit, grime, and some pure action. I doubt it'll get any Oscar nods (unless Miramax does some of their notorious bribing) and it might be a little too abrasive and cultish for a massive box office hit. But, I think it will have a pretty large fan base and technically even the most snobbish critic will appreciate some of Kill Bill's cinematic sparks. He's still a little overshadowed by his personality, that is, Tarantino's obnoxious filmgeek ego can dilute the fact that he's a good director/writer (sort of the opposite of someone like John Waters, who these days is arguably a better personality than a filmmaker).

If you enjoyed Kill Bill Vol. 1 and are a fledgling genre fan, I encourage you to check out the following films which, some far more than others, reflect the styles that make up the film. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance The Giallo Collection The Spaghetti Western Collection (particularly Django and Django Kill...) I Spit on Your Grave The Sonny Chiba Collection Master of the Flying Guillotine and Foxy Brown... to name a scant few. The spirit of revenge and justice looms in them. It is in Sonny Chiba's black-eyed death stare, in Pam Greir's sassy grin, in the sound of the flying guillotine screeching through the air, in Franco Nero's dirty battered hands, in Gordon Liu burning incense into his head, in Ennio Morricone's haunting Who Saw Her Die? score, and in Tomisaburo Wakayama's stone face as he hacks through an army of opponents.

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