In the era of multi-episode movies comes the latest from film geek Quentin Tarantino - Kill Bill Vol 1. Originally intended to be one complete film, Miramax made the decision to split the film in two and release them several months apart. Marketing ploy to capture more of movie goers money? A necessary move for a 3 1/2 hour film with sword battles that seem to go on forever? It's hard to tell. Until Vol 2 hits screen one can only speculate at the entirety of this project.
Kill Bill Vol 1 certainly isn't a bad film, it's a cornucopia of film styles and references which will keep even the most astute film geek on his toes. Tarantino's training comes from his time spent working in a video store and it shows... in a good way. More than almost any other Director Tarantino has a deep understanding of the films that have been lost in the edges and fallen into the creases of film history. While other director's reinact the restaurant scene in Scorsese's Goodfellas, Tarantino pulls from the work of The Shaw Brothers and tips his hat to Jack Hill all to the tune of some obscure Japanese band. The big benefit of this is that Kill Bill Vol 1 definitely inspires you to seek out the gems from the past that it draws from. But be warned, if you're not up on all your Shaw Brothers and Kurosawa films or can't identify an obscure version of the theme song from The Green Hornet you might very well feel on the outside of one long inside joke. After watching Kill Bill Vol 1 there's no question in my mind that Tarantino is an extremely talented director, but the question remains: is he a Great Director or does he just aspire to be great? My fear is, he's still aspiring to be great, and trying just a little too hard in the process.
Great or not, Tarantino fills Kill Bill with fantastic moments. There are scenes and shots in this movie which are outstanding, with a fantastic and distinct style that will please even the most skeptical Tarantino watchers. In one scene Uma Thurman sits staring at her feet willing her big toe to move, it may sound mundane but it's far more intense and captivating that some of the extremely long and bloody fights in the films. One of the biggest problems with Kill Bill Vol 1 is that the best moments of the film are lost in the ocean of a film that at times hobbles painfully along. Editor Sally Menke who is an fantastic editor may not have been the right choice for this film. She's edited every Tarantino film to date and perhaps Kill Bill Vol 1 may have benefited from someone who was more external and could have worked to reign Tarantino in a bit.
The key fault of Kill Bill may in fact be the decision to split the film into 2 parts. On almost every DVD with deleted scenes, there's a director describing how he had to shorten scenes and cut great moments because of time. By spanning his film into 2 parts Tarantino seems to have convinced himself that he was free of the constraints of time, but he isn't. Several scenes in Kill Bill Chapter Vol 1 drag on the ridiculous lengths especially the major fight sequence of the film.
Known for his in-you-face violent approach Tarantino spared no blood in making Kill Bill. It's jam packed with more severed limbs than almost any film I've ever seen. Perhaps as an homage to the Hong Kong action films a lot of the violence is a bit campy, more than once I reminded of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a knight gets limb after limb lopped off and shrugs it off 'tis but a scratch'. The violence isn't consistently campy or for that matter consistent, the film does have its moments and at times gives a real glimpse into the film perhaps it could have been.
Although it felt oddly placed, one of the highlights of Kill Bill is an animated sequence that runs just about 10 mins. It's is one of the stronger pieces of Anime I've seen in a while, it's engaging and stylistic as any other part of the film and it showed the potential for the medium when paired with such a visually talented director. But for some reason it just didn't seem to fit in.
Gimmicks in films are always a risk and in Kill Bill Vol 1, Tarantino takes this risky by assembling a number of short film length chapters (including the Anime Chapter) into a film. It's his contention that these chapters can be seen in any order and still work. Okaaay. With modern audiences now trained on alternative narrative threads (like Memento) you can jumble things around and expect people to follow it, the question is: should you? Again I'll need to defer to after seeing Volume 2 to see if this really works or not. But my gut feeling from seeing Vol 1 is, it doesn't. Narrative gimmicks can end up being more of a crutch than anything else and for a film more focused on style than substance it can mask some of the serious narrative issues that need to be addressed.
But in the end, perhaps the real allure of a Tarantino film IS the style and not so much the substance. Tarantino does have the unique ability to throw bits from massive amounts of lesser known films into a blender and come up with something that is uniquely his own and at times that's something that's 'really cool'. But ultimately there's something really missing from Kill Bill that I'm not entirely sure I can put my finger on. Tarantino's past films have been hip, cool and fun, but even from the get go Kill Bill never really felt fun.
Kill Bill is an entirely problematic film. On one hand it's a very difficult to recommend, it's extraordinarily violent, narratively a mess and at times you'll clearly feel on the wrong side of an inside joke. But on the other hand I could never warn people away from Kill Bill Vol 1, the film does take risks and at times those risks really pay off. Sure the film isn't perfect but in an era of bland packaged films I can't help but give credit to a film that does take chances, successful or not. If you're a Tarantino fan, nothing I've said will probably change your mind about seeing this film, and for the most part I think you'll get what you're looking for out of it. For everyone else, I might recommend holding off till Vol 2 comes around and seeing if the whole of this Tarantino experiment is better than some of its parts.