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Kill Bill: Vol. 1   B

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Parks, Sonny Chiba, Chiaki Kuriyami, Julie Dreyfus.

Review by Rob Vaux

Welcome back to the world of Quentin Tarantino, that blood-splattered postmodern video store where the words are as sharp as the swords sticking out of your chest. Nothing much has changed around here in the 10 years since Reservoir Dogs, as Kill Bill testifies for better or worse. It has the same old movie geek smirk on its face, the same blender mix of self-awareness, formalistic excess, and exploitative grandeur. Dogs and Pulp Fiction blew us all away with that shtick, but in the years since, it's been copied and recopied so many times that the energy has gone out of it. That's not necessarily Tarantino's fault, but Kill Bill's resolute adherence to his established style still makes it feel a day late and a dollar short. Masterwork status passed it by a long time ago; the idea has become the institution.

That doesn't mean, however, that it's not worthwhile. For all of his apparent narcissism, the director is still a remarkable talent, and Kill Bill could not have been made by anyone else. It's a good thing too, because in anyone else's hands, this would have been a disaster. The script is one-sentence high-concept -- a ex-assassin known only as the Bride (Uma Thurman) is gunned down on her wedding day by her former colleagues, only to awaken from a coma and hunt them down, one by one -- existing solely to move us from one set piece to the next. Plot, character, and story are purposefully ignored; imagery and pacing are all that matters. If anything, Kill Bill is even more obsessed with surface details than its predecessors, subsisting solely on riffs from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, '70s kung-fu flicks, blaxploitation, and a thousand other markers in a grab-bag smorgasbord of Things Quentin Finds Cool. Supposedly, it all ties together as a meditation on vengeance, and the pastiche of styles (ranging from B-movie zooms to sudden shifts of black-and-white to an entire sequence of Japanese anime) is certainly bound by that theme. But it's really all about the show; revenge is just an excuse to indulge in a pop-culture exercise.

Most summer blockbusters have similar priorities. Kill Bill's difference lies in its honesty -- there isn't even the pretense of genuine drama here -- and in the director's ability to make the visuals themselves a source of inspiration. He uses over-the-top violence as his primary tool, painting the Bride's quest with gallons of blood spurting from severed appendages of all varieties. As pure craftsmanship, it's very impressive, and the chop-socky fight scenes (choreographed by the omnipresent Yuen Wo-Ping) are enough to elicit more than a few "yowzas." Empty technique? Absolutely, but it's nonstop, and Tarantino doesn't miss a trick in bringing it to us.

What's missing is his flair for character, and the hard-boiled dialogue that made his early efforts such a thrill. So consumed is he by the images that he lets his talents as a writer slip... to the film's overall detriment. At least he found a good part for Lucy Liu. The gal's been wandering in the desert for too damn long and Kill Bill gives her a gem of a supporting role as the yakuza dominatrix on the Bride's hit list. It also has a sweet spot for martial arts star Sonny Chiba, playing a Japanese swordmaker whose katana the Bride uses to exact her revenge. But their moments notwithstanding, the figures we see on-screen serve the same basic purpose as the props and the set design. We never identify with them in any way, despite the horrendous wringer Tarantino puts them through (as cartoonish as it is, the violence here is truly shocking and the MPAA once again displays its moral bankruptcy by withholding an NC-17). A little humanity amid the spinning bodies is not too much to ask, but Kill Bill is too inflexible to take that into consideration.

As it is, Miramax probably did the right thing by dividing the film in two (the second half is coming next February). Though Kill Bill ends abruptly and leaves the whiff of franchise money-grubbing in its wake, another hour and a half of pyrotechnics would have truly melted the brain. Instead, we can appreciate what it has to offer and then take a four-month breather, knowing that the Bill of the title (played by David Carradine) will wait until Part II. Tarantino's passion for this material is as overwhelming as his self-indulgence in presenting it. He clearly loves his job, which is enough to make Kill Bill a palatable meal for the rest of us. Those expecting another masterpiece, however, will find only frustration. Tarantino the Genius is long gone; we'll have to settle for Tarantino the Fairly Interesting.

Review published 10.12.2003.

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