“Kill Bill Vol. 1” represents a hypertalented American film geek’s fever dream of complete immersion in the world of Asian martial arts pictures. A strange, fun and densely textured work that gets better as it goes along, this “4th film by Quentin Tarantino,” as the opening credits forthrightly put it, is actually the first half of what was originally intended as a single film, Vol. 2 of which is now set to open on Feb. 20 of next year. It remains to be seen what mainstream Yank audiences will make of an American film that is perhaps half in Japanese and is, at heart, a loving recapitulation of ’70s-era chop-socky highlights. But Tarantino’s large following, which has been waiting six years for a follow-up to “Jackie Brown,” and the spectacular action sequences should generate flashy B.O. numbers for Miramax and even better results overseas. Producers will double their pleasure in the DVD market with the initial release of “Vol. 1” followed by the ultimate double set of the complete feature down the line.
A cottage industry of film studies theses will no doubt result from “Kill Bill;” so entirely is it comprised of elements of previous movies that it’s virtually a great-looking Frankenstein monster among motion pictures. Tarantino’s overriding inspiration–Hong Kong kung fu actioners that largely showed at grind houses in the U.S.–is announced by the first image to hit the screen: a vintage logo for the “Shaw Scope” widescreen process from the Shaw Brothers studios.
Eventually, innumerable references come into play: spaghetti Westerns, yakuza dramas, Japanese and American TV shows, anime, pop music and female revenge yarns spanning everything from “The Bride Wore Black” to “Ms. 45.” Watching the film is like mainlining Tarantino’s favorite chosen cinematic moments, reshaped by the writer-director as a sort of reverie of adolescent enthusiasms. Few filmmakers have ever had the freedom and resources to make such a piece exactly as they wished, and Tarantino takes it so far that it becomes a highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal excursion into a world of movie-inspired unreality.
To the extent that it stems from an early love of martial arts cinema, “Kill Bill,” at this half-way mark at least, can be seen as a sort of pulpy populist companion piece to Zhang Yimou’s refined take on the genre, “Hero;” both are consummately aesthetisized recapitulations of oft-told tales, but while Zhang took the pristine high road, Tarantino resolutely takes the down-and-dirty low road.
Framed by two proverbs–“Revenge is a dish best served cold” and “Revenge is never a straight line”–“Kill Bill” actually does walk a pretty straight path, especially for a Tarantino film. Told in five labeled chapters, from “The Blood-Spattered Bride” to “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” pic elaborates the tale of a woman whose rural El Paso wedding ceremony is invaded by The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and who returns from near-death four years later to individually track down those responsible.
Unfortunately, Tarantino’s attempt to get things off to a kick-ass start, with Uma Thurman’s Bride busting into the Pasadena home of one of her attackers (Vivica A. Fox) to initiate a prolonged and bloody fight-to-the-death, does just the opposite; scene’s over-the-top violence and tough-babe attitudes come on too strong right out of the box, before viewers can get their bearings. Somewhat awkward sequence creates an off-puttingly unsettling feeling in that the gruesome results are witnessed by the dead woman’s little daughter, to whom the Bride speaks in callously adult terms. It’s doubtful that anyone who had ever had kids could write a scene quite like this.
Partly as a result, it takes a while for the film to get on track; in fact, it’s easy to see how, had Tarantino needed to compress “Kill Bill” into one feature, the events of the first 35 minutes could have squeezed into half that time. A long, weird and questionable interlude is devoted the Bride’s comatose stay in hospital, her near-rape arranged by an orderly who pimps for unconscious patients, and her eventual escape.
Oddly, it’s an anime sequence that puts things right. The Bride’s second target is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the queen of the Tokyo underworld, whose backstory of having witnessed, as a child, the brutal killing of her gangster father by yakuza thugs and of eventually extracting her own revenge, is told entirely in a 7-minute anime specially created under Tarantino’s direction by the Japanese studio, Production I.G. Inspired device is strongly effective and serves as a wonderful bridge for the action from the U.S. to Asia.
First stop on the Bride’s long road to her destiny is Okinawa for a little blade shopping at the modest sushi bar of Hattori Hanzo (’70s martial arts superstar Sonny Chiba), the name of the ninja assassin Chiba played on Japanese TV series “Shadow Warriors.” After some genial broad comedy that shifts the film’s dialogue primarily to Japanese, the long-retired warrior agrees to make a special samurai sword for the Bride, who then makes her way to Tokyo (her sword right by her side in the wonderfully artificial plane) for her battle royal with O-Ren Ishii, whose takeover of the local crime scene is dramatized in an outrageous board room sequence.
Pic’s giant set piece, which reportedly took eight weeks to shoot, takes place in a nightclub, where the Bride’s disruptive arrival prompts a fierce fight with lethal, school-uniformed hit girl Gogo (“Battle Royale” star Chiaki Kuriyama), whose weapon of choice is a blade-adorned ball and chain inspired by Tarantino fave “Master of the Flying Guillotine.”
Thereafter, O-Ren Ishii summons seemingly dozens of sword-wielding, black-suited-and-masked samurai to try to finish off the Bride. As in a martial arts wet dream, the yellow jump-suited Bride hacks, thrusts, whirls, spins, cartwheels, jumps, bends and slides around the premises as she lays waste to this grunting and groaning crew. For this dazzlingly prolonged sequence, which employs extensive wire stunts but no CGI, the color bleeds into black-and-white, presumably, as was the case with “Taxi Driver” and its desaturated climactic bloodbath, to avoid MPAA ratings problems. But whatever grisliness is skirted visually is more than made up for by the accentuated sound effects, which are amazing throughout.
After all this overwhelming mayhem, the climactic action settles down to a highly focused mano a mano between the Bride and the white-robed O-Ren Ishii. Played out in the classical setting of a formal Japanese garden on a night graced by light snowfall, this fight, which is shot in carefully framed compositions, has the concentration and precision of a chess match, and reps a satisfying conclusion to “Vol. 1,” even if it only marks the half-way point in the overall story.
Postscript teaser material promises a return to the American Southwest to track down the Bride’s three remaining nemeses: eye-patched hit woman Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), here present in the hospital sequence; the little-glimpsed Budd (Michael Madsen); and, inevitably, the title character, whose face is never seen in “Vol. 1,” although David Carradine’s hands are seen and voice is heard. Press notes supplied for the first installment actually reveal significant plot points for both films, and in them Tarantino promises that “Vol. 2” will take a strongly dramatic turn into spaghetti Western territory, something hinted at here by the preponderance of “found” Italian Western music by Morricone and others on the soundtrack.
Brutalized and bloodied in nearly every scene of the picture, Thurman looks as though she were really put through the wringer here in what might have been the most physically arduous female role since Sigourney Weaver battled the “Alien.” Like the picture itself, Thurman really comes into her own once the story settles in Asia, where she generates good fun with Chiba and ferocious adversarial techniques opposite her innumerable enemies. Having had to learn swordsmanship as well as Japanese dialogue delivery well enough to hold her own among native thesps, Thurman cuts, so to speak, a terrific figure.
Well known for renewing the careers of faded favorites (John Travotla, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, et al.), Tarantino appears above all to have done similar favors here to Chiba, whose old pictures will undoubtedly come into heavy new demand as a result of his enjoyable perf. Liu registers much more impressively here than in the “Charlie’s Angels” opuses, while the most intriguing discovery is Julie Dreyfus, a beautiful French actress with a long career in Japan who makes quite an impression as O-Ren Ishii’s right arm and, thanks to the Bride, eventually one-armed colleague.
Beautifully made picture is immeasurably boosted by Sally Menke’s exceedingly dynamic and fluid editing, which cuts on the action in the big scenes while establishing a gradually accelerating pace to the film overall, and Robert Richardson’s deeply inventive cinematography, which pays homage to established genre styles while developing different looks for the individual chapters. Production design by Yohei Tanada (for the Asian section) and David Wasco and costumes by Kumiko Ogawa and Catherine Marie Thomas are uniformly striking. As usual for Tarantino, soundtrack is key, with source music, sometimes familiar, other times not, pop tunes and original compositions by The RZA (Robert Diggs, producer of The Wu-Tang Clan) often setting the tone for scenes.
In the end, much speculation will probably swirl around whether or not “Kill Bill” represents a case of arrested development and adolescent fixations elaborated to an astonishing degree, of pop culture esoterica transported into the realm of Event by virtue of one filmmaker’s intense obsessions. Some viewers will also miss the snap and color of Tarantino’s trademark dialogue, which reportedly asserts itself more in the second half. All the same, the picture displays the confidence, nerve and wild imagination that marked the filmmaker’s earlier work, along with increased visual savvy.
Most importantly, at the end, you’re up to see what happens in “Vol. 2.”