Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2 Review
“You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favourite person. But every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.” - Bill
I originally wrote about Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 separately, the first before the second had even been released. Looking back at these older reviews, they have their strengths and weaknesses, but most crucially they lack one major factor: an appreciation of the bigger picture. Obviously, the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I would like to take this opportunity to reappraise Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked homage to 60s and 70s Eastern and Western genre cinema as a whole rather than as two self-contained volumes. With the so-called “Whole Bloody Affair” (which combines both parts into a single four-hour epic) still not having seen the light of day outside of a handful of screenings at select theatrical venues, viewing the two individual episodes back to back would seem to constitute the current best way of appreciating what Tarantino originally intended.
To recap, the plot is conventional B-movie revenge fare: the unnamed Bride (Uma Thurman) awakens from a four-year coma caused by a bullet to the head from her former boss, the eponymous Bill (David Carradine), in collusion with his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which the Bride was formerly a member. Having massacred her friends and husband to be, taken her unborn child and left her for dead, the perpetrators are understandably due for some grim retribution. And retribution doesn’t come much grimmer than that which the Bride exacts, setting forth to cut a bloody swathe through all and sundry that stand in the way of the ultimate target of her vengeance: Bill himself.
Kill Bill ably demonstrates both Tarantino’s weaknesses and strengths as a filmmaker. On the downside, he is unrelentingly self-indulgent, and there is some validity to the oft-levelled accusation that he really needs to get himself a new editor: pacing across the board is problematic, with a number of scenes going on for so long as to become tedious. Oddly enough, this is more problematic in Volume 1, which many cite as the more involving of the two. This is partly because of the juxtaposition between bursts of intense action (such as the justly lauded House of Blue Leaves fight sequence which serves as the first instalment’s climax and main action set-piece) and the slower, more leaden moments where Tarantino allows the action to grind to a halt so he can indulge in dreary, overwritten conversations or needlessly extended detours into the back-stories of incidental characters. In comparison, Volume 2 operates at a considerably slower pace across the board, lingering on locales and characters’ facial expressions, particularly during stand-offs, much like the westerns (both American and Italian) it is referencing. As a result, the tempo is more measured, and the fact that the real meat of the plot and characterisation is concentrated in the second half means that the slower scenes carry more dramatic weight than those in Volume 1.
On the upside, Tarantino really is the undisputed master of the homage, able to cherry-pick motifs from a wide variety of sources and somehow assemble them all into a single, cohesive whole. There’s a such level of panache in the execution as to leave you in no doubt that the man behind the camera has a genuine love for each and every film, television show or pop song he has cribbed from, no matter how obscure or superficially tawdry the source materials might be. Occasionally, he comes dangerously close to stepping over the line which separates homage from parody (the Pai Mei training sequence in Volume 2, entertaining as it is, does have a somewhat snide tone), but for the most part Kill Bill has a sincerity that belies that fact that it is essentially a collection of characters, lines and scenes re-sampled from films that most of the audience has never heard of, let alone seen. It’s tempting to view Tarantino as the film world’s equivalent of a DJ, re-appropriating and remixing other artists’ handiwork, and at times his choice of material doesn’t make a great deal of sense (is there really any meaning, for instance, in repurposing Nora Orlandi’s themes from the giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh in what is ostensibly the context of an homage to westerns?), and there’s also something slightly disingenuous about a multi-million dollar blockbuster that squanders massive amounts of money attempting to emulate films whose budgets wouldn’t even cover this film’s catering bill, but it’s doubtful that all these individual elements could have been mixed into a more potent cocktail than this. Both films are technically excellent, with Tarantino aided by an extremely talented cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson, and (in the first volume) the combined efforts of Yuen Woo-ping and the KNB EFX Group to provide a heady mixture of slick wirework and over-the-top grue.
The real star of both films, however, is Uma Thurman. The Bride is, at least until the final act of Volume 2, a paper-thin construction, more of an icon than an actual character (and, arguably, deliberately so), but Thurman’s gung-ho performance allows her to overcome the limitations of the role, establishing her as a genuine action heroine in the process. She manages to alternate between over the top and comparatively subtle, spitting out hokey dialogue as if she really believes in the words she’s saying, and as a result lends the films an air of credibility that they would have lacked had she approached the character with her tongue in her cheek. Both volumes are, of course, peppered with star turns and cameos (some extended, some brief) from numerous icons of world cinema, with Gordon Liu, Sonny Chiba and (extremely briefly) Samuel L. Jackson all butting heads. If there is a true stand-out, however, it’s David Carradine as Bill, giving a measured, nuanced performance and succeeding in making a cold-blooded killer seem like an amiable, whimsical eccentric – something which only succeeds in making his sudden bursts of violence and cruelty seem all the more shocking.
Taken as a whole, Kill Bill is a well-made and entertaining, if over-long and somewhat self-indulgent, ramble through the director’s favourite B-movies and songs. I suspect that its whole is actually slightly less than the sum of its parts – the strongest moments tend to be individual scenes and snatches of dialogue which don’t ultimately contribute a whole lot to the bigger picture – but it’s a fun romp overall, if ultimately a superficial one. For my money, Tarantino’s best work remains Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, the latter the closest he has ever come to making a “normal” film, but I find myself returning to Kill Bill more than these two put together. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for silly Caucasian girls who like to play with Samurai swords.
Although released on separate discs, the transfers for both volumes of Kill Bill are essentially of the same standard – that is to say very good but still with some noticeable flaws. They are both presented in their original 2.39:1 aspect ratio (barring a brief segment in Volume 2 which is windowboxed to 1.33:1, as per the original theatrical presentation and the DVDs), and have received AVC encodes on dual-layer BD-50 discs. Kill Bill was treated to a digital intermediate, which caused Tarantino, who felt that the end result was overly clean, some misgivings. The cleanness to which he was referring is, I suspect, due to a grain reduction pass, the results of which are unfortunately readily apparent more or less consistently throughout the film. This takes the form of “sluggish” movement of the film grain and some smearing on textures and facial features during fast movement (the grainy monochromatic sequence in the wedding chapel at the start of Volume 2 is worst affected), in addition to some ghosting (particularly prevalent in the animated sequence in Volume 1 which charts the origin of O-Ren). Ultimately, the image looks rather digital and not at all like the films being referenced, with only the deliberately grainy Pai Mei training sequence exhibiting anything close to an unadulterated filmic look.
These quibbles aside, the transfers are of a very high standard. Detail is almost always very good, resulting in the films looking completely different from the very disappointing, overly processed standard definition DVDs. Compression is faultless across the board, and, barring the noise reduction, there is no other evidence of digital tampering, apart from what looks like some light edge enhancement in the snow garden at the end of Volume 1. Overall, both films look very pleasing to the eye, with the flaws that do exist more than likely being the fault of the production house contracted to produce the DI rather than the technicians responsible for the Blu-ray transfers.
For audio, both films feature uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio tracks (48 kHz, 24-bit), which sound absolutely stellar, conveying the mix’s broad soundstage and the impressive level of detail in the foley design. Dialogue is clear across the board, and the individual pops and crackles in the vinyl-sourced music tracks are crisply rendered (no doubt a little too crisply for some!). The rear channels are used effectively throughout, with the standout moment being the “buried alive” segment of Volume 2. These rank as among the best audio tracks available on Blu-ray at the moment, and truly show what a lossless audio presentation of a good mix can do to enrich the viewing experience.
English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (both 640 kbit/sec) are also provided, in addition to optional subtitles in a variety of languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, with French subtitles also, inexplicably, being provided for Volume 1 but not Volume 2). Non-English dialogue is, as with the DVDs, player generated, but does a far better job of “blending in” with the rest of the film than on these previous releases. For the most part, they are accurately placed within the picture frame, although on a couple of occasions in Volume 1 the text does unfortunately stray out of the picture frame and into the letterboxing below (a pain for those with 2.39:1 displays).
One final word of caution: perhaps this goes without saying, but it should be noted that the versions of both films presented here are the R-rated US cuts rather than the Japanese versions. In the case of Volume 2, the Japanese version gains little more than a few seconds’ worth of establishing shots, but for Volume 1, the differences are considerably more significant. In addition to having the entire House of Blue Leaves fight scene in colour, the Japanese cut also gains a number of additional gore shots and a longer version of the O-Ren origin story, in addition to other more minor changes which are adequately catalogued elsewhere. Many viewers, myself included, prefer Volume 1 in its Japanese incarnation, and those who are likely to be bothered by these differences may wish to hold out for an unexpurgated copy at a later date.
The extras included are exactly the same ones which accompanied the American DVD releases of both films. In other words, they don’t amount to anything particularly worthwhile. Each volume receives a fairly superficial “making of” EPK (22 minutes for Volume 1 and 26 minutes for Volume 2), consisting of behind the scenes material, far too many clips from the films, and perfunctory clips of the cast and crew answering the usual inane questions that have been put to them.
In terms of the rest of the content, Volume 1 has a collection of trailers for various Tarantino films, among them the teaser and “bootleg” trailers for Volume 1 and the theatrical trailer for Volume 2. Volume 1 also includes 6 minutes’ worth of unused footage of Japanese band the 5, 6, 7, 8s performing at the House of Blue Leaves, while Volume 2 has Robert Rodriguez, who composed the small amount of original music heard in the film, performing live with his band at the film’s premiere party. The final curiosity, also accompanying Volume 2, is a brief (4-minute) deleted scene consisting of a flashback in which David Carradine engages in a fight with Michael Jai White. All of this is fairly insubstantial and simply leaves the viewer yearning for the special edition that Tarantino has hinted at on numerous occasions.
All of the extras are presented in standard definition.
Provided the lack of extras and the presence of the tamer R-rated cut of Volume 1 don’t deter you, both volumes of Kill Bill have been well-served on Blu-ray. In an ideal world, the Weinstein Company would have released the combined cut of both films, entitled “The Whole Bloody Affair” (which also includes the House of Blue Leaves fight scene in colour and the violence deleted from the R-rated version), in high definition by now. Given that they have yet to even release it on DVD, however, it looks like this is going to be the best we’ll get for some time, and really, we could do a hell of a lot worse.
Full resolution 1920x1080 screen captures of both films are available on my web site:
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