If you ask me to rate this film on a scale of one to 10, my head will explode. Using such a system on any other film is problematic; using it on “Kill Bill: Volume One” (Miramax) is hopelessly absurd. With all the ferocious zest that Quentin Tarantino has invested in his latest project, including but not limited to its extensive genre quoting, idiosyncratic homages and unabashed aggression, “Kill Bill” will undoubtedly prove to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Let it be said that no number, letter grade or set of fat chubby thumbs will do this film justice.
Opening with a classic Tarantino moment, the viewer hears a woman panting while the screen remains black. Ahh, yes. The crowd gets anxious, thinking it’s about to see some steamy sex. But remember, not once has Tarantino ever represented the sexual act as that which is “normal.” And this scene is no different, proving not to be sex we hear but the bloody beaten body of Uma Thurman as her former friends and lover stand over her … amused … on her wedding day … while she’s pregnant. And so the tone of the film is set, one that’s certainly carried throughout the film’s duration.
Uma Thurman plays the role of “The Bride,” also known as “Black Mamba,” a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. For reasons unbeknownst to the viewer, The Bride’s real name is bleeped out whenever spoken. While the plot does not delve into the reasons behind this character’s betrayal, one thing is clear: after surviving Bill’s bullet to the head and then having her child taken from her and being left for dead in a coma for four years, vengeance is No. 1 on this bride’s list. And when I say “list” I mean it literally. The Bride has written up a “to kill” list, with her former colleagues listed in the order of least important to most important, Bill being listed at the bottom in big, capital letters.
What volume one tackles are the vengeance killings of the first two ladies on The Bride’s list, Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu) and Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), in reverse order. Take note that linearity is not a part of this film’s story line, as the plot unfolds in a series of trademark Tarantino flash backs and flash forwards.
The viewer is jostled through time often enough, but not in a way that is overly confusing. First comes the knife fight between Black Mamba and Copperhead, one that’s interrupted by Copperhead’s daughter coming home from school. Here the violence stops between the two so they can chat over a cup of coffee (a Tarantino trademark), only to see the violence randomly erupt once more and in a major way (another Tarantino trademark).
From this point on, the flashbacks keep on coming. The Bride is beaten on her wedding day, endures a comatose stay at the hospital (with a nice, sick twist), interacts with an old samurai master (played by the legendary Sonny Cheeba) and appears in an anime sequence to flesh out Cottenmouth’s past. There is also an orgy of ultra-violence that ensues once The Bride and Cottenmouth meet up. It’s a lot of movement, but Tarantino does a better job showing it than I can describe.
All in all, it’s pretty hard to get bored during this film, especially when limbs are getting hacked off left and right and blood is exploding into every corner of the frame.
Complete with many of Tarantino’s autuer signatures, the viewer can expect to see the usual random, ultra-violent comedy, non-linear time structure, crime talk over coffee, twisted sexual situations, trunk shots, guys in black suits and formalist cinematography. What the viewer may not expect, however, is the absence of Tarantino’s greatest claim to fame – his dialogue. With about a quarter of the film in Japanese with English subtitles and the rest modeled after poorly dubbed catch phrases from the Martial Arts genre, there are no classic lines to be remembered.
But then again, this appears to be the way Tarantino wanted it, as he certainly pokes fun at the film’s corny premise and bizarre reality. The film occasionally pokes fun at itself, most notably when Thurman mocks the fact that a large number of male villains are wearing black Kato masks straight out of a Bruce Lee flick.
“Kill Bill” is a cross between a Japanese chanbara (samurai) and yakuza (gangster) flick, taking the two genres’ trademark iconographies and spicing them up tremendously. A samurai showdown between The Bride and Cottonmouth is flavored wonderfully with the hints of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western shootouts. Mamba’s approaches via motorcycle are suggestive of the death-dealing motorcyclists of Jean Cocteaus’s “Orpheus.” Yet what’s seen is somewhat contradictory, for while the fighting sequences are beautifully shot, they all end up in humorous explosions of blood reminiscent of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s” black knight sequence.
What “Kill Bill” does above all else is mystify. Where a Kurosawa or an Ang Lee has used martial arts as a vehicle to explore the inner conditions of man, what Tarantino appears to do is use the genre as a medium to explore itself. Throughout the film’s duration it revels in a self-reflexive hedonism of form. This is by no means meant as an insult, but let it be said that people without an education in genre theory or a taste for the corny martial arts films of the past may walk away very confused. At times you can almost hear Tarantino laughing out loud, saying, “That’s right, I just did that. Did you get it?”
Character development is by far the film’s weakest element, with little background provided besides the anime sequence that explores Cottenmouth’s past. What’s experienced is pure pleasure of the moment as the choreographic and cinematic techniques unfold. The downside to this is a rather empty feeling once all the action ceases and the credits roll. But while it may be hard to feel for any of the characters, Tarantino’s technique manages to pull the film through this mire with superb style, random events and hard-boiled violence.
This is the world of Quentin Tarantino, and what a world it is. He’s managed to create a completely stunning cinematic hyper-reality that reaches above and beyond any other mainstream movie, all while using ingredients that have clearly existed before in the mainstream cinema. Perhaps the masses just weren’t paying attention when they first appeared, perhaps Tarantino just has a way with reinvention. Either way, “Kill Bill” is a film that must experienced by any lover of the cinema.