It’s been a long wait – six years, in fact – for the new Quentin Tarantino movie. The filmmaker hadn’t made a movie since Jackie Brown in 1997, and rumors flew that he had writer’s block, or was living as a pothead in Amsterdam, or was just plain washed up. None of these turned out to be true, though. It turns out, more or less, that Tarantino basically just works at his own pace. He makes a movie when the passion hits him. As proof that he is anything but washed up, Tarantino now brings us Kill Bill Vol. I, the first installment of his two-part salute to martial arts/samurai movies. Within the first five minutes, it becomes perfectly clear that Tarantino is every bit the master of cinema he’s been since Reservoir Dogs hit screens over a decade ago.
The plot is as simple as they come. Uma Thurman stars as a woman identified only as “the Bride” (whenever her real name is spoken, the movie comically bleeps it out, almost as if it is not to be spoken). On her wedding day, the Bride was brutally attacked by a group known as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. They killed her husband and unborn baby, and they thought they killed her too. However, the Bride somehow survived, and now – four years after the fact – she sets out for revenge. Her plan is to kill each member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad including Vernita Green, a.k.a. ”Copperhead” (Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife, and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now head of all Japanese yakuza. Last but not least, she will kill the leader of the group: Bill (David Carradine).
The whole “you killed somebody I cared about, so now I’m going to kill you” revenge saga is one of the oldest plots in movies. What’s amazing about Kill Bill is that it takes the scenario more seriously than most pictures. Through flashbacks (many of which are quite graphic), we come to understand the horror of the Assassination Squad’s attack on the Bride. It wasn’t just a killing, it was a brutal massacre. By showing us the violence in such an unflinching manner, Tarantino invites us to put ourselves in the Bride’s shoes. We are appalled by the hatefulness of the violence, and it makes us understand why the Bride wants revenge at all costs. A lot of pictures just go for the knee-jerk audience reaction; this one tries to get us to understand the burning emotion that underlies revenge.
Thankfully, Tarantino has always been a whiz when it comes to casting. He made the right choice in giving the starring role to Uma Thurman. An actress who is often better than the films she’s in, Thurman has a chance to shine here in a way she hadn’t had since Pulp Fiction (surprise, surprise). She brings real emotion to the role, sensitively conveying the tragedy and loss her character feels. At times, she breaks down crying; other times, she steels herself up with reminders that the payback she hands out has been earned. It is a phenomenally complex performance that will hopefully bring an Oscar nomination.
Since this is a story of revenge, Kill Bill naturally has a lot of violence in it. This is, hands down, one of the most violent movies I’ve ever seen. Yet again, Tarantino manages to have violence without really glamorizing it. The violent acts shown here occasionally made me cringe because they were so realistic, but I kind of think that’s the point. We sit through so many pictures that trivialize violence or make it look cool. Here’s one that says violence is horrible and sometimes unspeakably awful; it has consequences and it has the power to be destructive in more ways than one.
Tarantino has long been fascinated with exploitation movies. All of his films have touched on elements of this fascination, but this is the first time he has really embraced it fully. Kill Bill is like a bigger, more star-studded version of the films that, during the 60’s and 70’s, played in big-city “grindhouses” – the theaters that showed the rawest, most exploitative movies possible. You really see this influence in the second hour of the film, as the Bride goes to Japan in search of O-Ren. Needing a sword with which to exact her revenge, the Bride convinces a master sword maker to come out of retirement. He is played by martial arts star Sonny Chiba, whose Street Fighter movies were grindhouse staples.
The climactic battle against O-Ren and her minions – which concludes Vol. I - also takes a clear inspiration from various Japanese samurai movies, including the popular Zatoichi series that runs regularly on the Independent Film Channel. Armed with her new sword, the Bride takes on dozens of enemies at once. The intricately choreographed routine features gravity-defying stunts in a fast-paced ballet of violence. Tarantino has been lauded mostly for his visual style and his snappy dialogue; he has not been well-known as an action director. This long scene proves he has a real imagination for how to stage an action sequence. All the action movies he loves have taken seed in his brain and come back out in a unique mixture.
I love, too, how he gives Kill Bill so many different visual styles. Some of the scenes are relentlessly gritty, others are more slick and polished. There are moments that are played for comedy and others that are played for horror. There’s even a stunning extended anime sequence that explains the back story of O-Ren. When a movie has different styles simultaneously, it can be a recipe for disaster. The difference is that Tarantino is totally in charge at every second. He knows exactly what he’s doing, exactly what he wants to convey from moment to moment. He’s truly one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today.
There are lots of other things to love, most of which are commonplace to Tarantino’s movies: the strong ensemble cast, the effective (and sometimes ironic) use of pop music to underscore certain scenes, the depth with which all the characters are drawn. I really enjoyed watching him take these trademark elements and incorporate them into a different genre. It’s nice to see a director taking risks, trying new things.
I have only one complaint about Kill Bill Vol. I, and that complaint is that the movie has been divided in two. Supposedly, the total running time is three hours, so Tarantino and Miramax split it in half, with Vol. II coming out in February. There really was no need to do this. Three hour movies are no big deal anymore, thanks to epics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thankfully, Kill Bill doesn’t end with a cheesy “to be continued…” moment a la The Matrix Reloaded; regardless, I enjoyed the movie so much that I don’t want to wait four months to see what happens. Of course, my griping can also stand as a sign of how good and how massively entertaining this film is. The idea of delayed gratification is almost more than I can stand.
( out of four)
Kill Bill Vol. I is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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