Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, Chiaki Kuriyama, Julie Dreyfus, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, David Carradine

MPAA Rating:  (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 10/10/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Quentin Tarantino is a joyous filmmaker, one whose love of film is clear in every frame of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and one whose euphoria is absolutely infectious. Despite what many might think, this is his first real piece of pulp fiction. Tarantino's homage to martial arts action films of the '60s and '70s is a sweat-soaked, blood-drenched samurai Western that expertly balances the absurd and the poignant—entertainment and art. It's camp that transcends campiness. Everything we've come to expect from Tarantino—dark humor, postmodern self-awareness, outstanding dialogue, and chronologically disconnected storytelling—flows throughout the film. There's nothing much to the story here, only a simple revenge tale with its roots in exploitative female empowerment flicks, but Tarantino goes for broke and pulls out all the stops. As an action film, it follows the simple but vital rule of continuously topping what has come before it and gives us an invigorating extended climactic battle where blood squirts and sprays, limbs are hacked off here and there, and it all achieves a kind of beauty of form. In an inexplicable case of irrationality, this is only the first part of a longer, already complete film, and it's only in this studio-sanctioned gaffe that Kill Bill: Vol. 1 unfortunately falters.

The film starts with one of those rare opening scenes that manages to grab you from the start. Uma Thurman plays a character simply known as The Bride (her real name is purposely bleeped out whenever mentioned), because we first see her bruised and beaten on the floor of the church where her entire wedding party has been slaughtered. Standing over her, loading a gun, is Bill (David Carradine), leader of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which The Bride, under the codename Black Mamba, was once a member. The scene ends with a sudden punch, and now the central plot and back story alternately unfold. The story, of course, follows The Bride as she travels from Japan to Pasadena, California (vice-versa in the film) to exact revenge upon those who left her for dead. Bill, of course, is at the end of her list of intended victims, but there are four more former team members that she must eliminate beforehand. The first part of the movie follows her revenge on two of them: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who's moved on to a legitimate family life in the four years since the attack at the church, and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), boss of the Japanese criminal world.

The other two, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Budd (Michael Madsen), make brief appearances (very, very brief in the latter's case) as the script plays with the timeline of events. The structure embodies the theme that revenge is not straightforward and is instead "like a forest," which comes up very late in the film. It also serves to keep the audience guessing at first and allow the back story to double as important revelations. On a more basic level, though, the refiguring of the plot helps with the dramatic buildup. Killing number two isn't nearly as intricate a sequence as number one, so number two comes first. The first fight scene takes place in Vernita's surreal, suburban dreamscape of a home, the first of many instances of strong color choices in the production design. The brawl in the house has The Bride and Vernita using the environment to their best advantage, so that at one point The Bride is on the defensive with a frying pan. Here we also have a foreshadowing of Tarantino's rhythm in the action scenes to come, as the two fighters pause as Vernita's daughter arrives home from school.

The stakes, of course, are raised for the climactic mêlée. That sequence starts off simple, with one guard following in the tradition of many who have come before him by attacking on his own. Soon enough, minions are deposed, and there's an intense fight with O-Ren's personal bodyguard Go Go (Chiaki Kuriyama), a seventeen-year-old psychotic who dresses like a schoolgirl and is armed with a nasty ball and chain. The excess continues during a full-out war with O-Ren's personal army the Crazy 88s, in which Tarantino's dark sense of humor comes to a head. The film indulges in over-the-top, nonrealistic violence and bloodshed, and many jokes revolve around dismemberment, disembowelment, or decapitation. Blood sprays like a fountain from the wounded, as in a scene where O-Ren cuts off the head of her only critic. Immediately afterwards, she amusingly points out that she will speak in English because what she has to say is important. Tarantino's ear for dialogue is still incredible, even here when much of it is overblown (The Bride announcing that the living can leave with their lives but must leave their lost limbs because they now belong to her) or affectedly stoic. In the middle of it all, there's a refreshingly natural scene involving the bickering between the sushi chef/sword-maker Hazo (Sonny Chiba) and his assistant.

Similarly, there are comparatively subdued moments in the midst of the exaggeration, and it's within that antithesis that Tarantino triumphs. Thurman looks as if someone is tearing her apart as she realizes that she has woken up from her coma and is no longer pregnant. The Bride gets her first taste of revenge (literally) on a pair of perverts who have and are inclined to take advantage of her while she's comatose. The Bride sitting in the back seat of a stolen truck willing her toes to movie after her leg muscles have atrophied. There are also scenes that somehow combine the affectation and sincerity into artistic gravitas and beauty. Near the end of the fight with the Crazy 88s, someone—for no reason, really—turns out the lights to give us a silhouetted ballet of swordplay against a rich blue backdrop. There's also a brilliant animated sequence that tells the back story of O-Ren and achieves a certain undeniable pathos. The final battle between The Bride and O-Ren takes place in a serene, snowy garden and gains a lot from our knowledge of the assassin's past.

The choice to divide Kill Bill into two parts is, to say the least, unnecessary and frustrating, and, to say the worst, greedy and inexcusable. Tarantino does what he can with the split, giving us an awkwardly edited chunk of film in the final minutes meant to close out this section, hint at things to come, and give us one last shocking pronouncement for the cliffhanger. After seeing the first part of the film, there's no logical reason to break up the movie. The length isn't an issue; this half goes by effortlessly. A shorter running time, though, means more screenings per theater and more money. Then multiply that by two. It's a shame, because it's the only thing putting a damper on the film so far.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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