Kill Bill Vol. 1 Review
The coolest moment in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 contains none of his trademark dialogue, though the film has many memorable lines. Nor does it contain any bloodshed, though there's bucketloads of that. It's a moment of pure anticipation. His vengeful heroine (Uma Thurman), freshly equipped with a custom-made samurai sword, has flown into Tokyo to kill a murderous ex-colleague (Lucy Liu), who is now head of the Yakuza, the Japanese mob. Donning the sexiest biker outfit ever, the Bride rides for the gangsters' den, the House of Blue Leaves, where her prey has just arrived, flanked by her businesslike aide (Julie Dreyfus) and schoolgirl bodyguard (Chiaki Kuriyama). As the soundtrack segues into Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor Or Humanity", that ever so catchy piece of funk from the Kill Bill trailers, Lucy Liu gazes flirtaciously at the camera, teasing us with what we know is coming.
Tarantino must know a lot about anticipation. It's been five and a half years since Jackie Brown, his follow-up to Pulp Fiction, which was received with more muted admiration than it deserved. An attempt at a more humane crime picture, it was less showy and less distinctive than his previous material and it divided critics, fans and audiences. Kill Bill sees him return to the world of his earlier films, a world derived from the B-movies of the sixties and seventies and filtered through the director's unique sensibility. Yet this isn't a re-run of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has set out to make a genre piece, an ultimate martial arts / spaghetti western / revenge picture which can stand alongside the genre classics to which it pays tribute.
Of course Kill Bill is now two movies. Faced with a running time in excess of three hours, its director chose to split it down the middle rather than cut it. Vol. 1 is the martial arts movie and presumably Vol. 2 will be the spaghetti western. Michael Madsen's cowboy drawl suggests it will. Hollywood's record on martial arts is patchy to say the least. For every Matrix or Shanghai Noon, there's a dozen embarassing Bulletproof Monks and Tuxedos. But Tarantino knows the genre better than most, he clearly loves it and most importantly he understands how to make it work with Western stars and conventions, something that trips up most Hollywood kung fu pictures. Probably only the man himself could get all the homages to Asian cinema here but the most obvious tips of the hat are to Bruce Lee, whose Game Of Death jumpsuit Thurman wears for the big showdown and the supporting role for Japanese star Sonny Chiba. This is no cameo - Chiba is excellent as a swordmaker-cum-cafe owner and brings not only gravity to the film's midsection but some huge, unexpected laughs.
If the light, tongue in cheek nature of the advance trailers had hardcore Tarantino fans worrying that their idol had succumbed to the Hollywood mainstream and made Charlie's Angels 3, worry no longer - he hasn't. While Kill Bill borrows from other sources with Tarantino's usual magpie-ish enthusiasm, it's still satisfyingly unlike anything else you'll have seen, including his own work. The director sets the mood before the credits with an old-fashioned 1970s title-card announcing "Our feature presentation", then an apparently serious quotation about revenge turns into an amusing nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan - which is a revenge movie after all. So Tarantino's going to be playing for laughs, right? Wrong. The next instant, a battered, terrified and pregnant Uma Thurman is shot point blank in the head. Kill Bill is retro and state of the art and funny and dead serious and entertainingly gruesome and genuinely horrifying. It straddles genres and tones in a way only Tarantino can pull off.
The plot is B-movie simplicity. Uma Thurman is The Bride, the avenging angel who's never referred to by name (in fact it's said twice but beeped over, an unnecessary and slightly annoying gimmick). Under the codename Black Mamba she was a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. She quit the team and was tracked down and attacked on her wedding day by her former colleagues. They killed her husband-to-be along with all the other guests and left the Bride for dead. Awakening after four and a half years in a coma, she vows to track the Vipers down one by one and take her revenge.
Her targets: O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), codename Cottonmouth, the queen bitch of the Yakuza; Vernita Green (Viveca A Fox), codename Copperhead, now retired and a wife and mother; Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), codename California Mountain Snake, an ice queen with an eyepatch; Budd (Michael Madsen), codename Sidewinder, a good ol' boy apparently. I say apparently because we don't get much more than a glimpse of Madsen in Vol. 1. This first installment concerns the backstory, the Bride's recovery and her visits to Copperhead and Cottonmouth. Daryl Hannah gets a great introduction early on, then disappears while David Carradine remains a voice offscreen, like an evil Charlie. It's Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu who dominate the proceedings, though Viveca A Fox, best known as Will Smith's girlfriend in Independence Day, makes a strong impression in her one big scene. Famously Tarantino delayed Kill Bill for a year to accommodate Thurman's pregnancy and she proves she was worth the delay. Flawless as both an indestructible killer and a damaged human being, she makes the year's best superhero. As her first major nemesis, Liu adds a real touch of menace to her usual cool, impassive air. Also deserving of praise is 17-year-old Chiaki Kuriyama, whose manga-style ass-kicking schoolgirl GoGo Yubari is a memorable and downright disturbing creation.
Directing his first real action movie, Tarantino does exceptional work. Like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John Woo and the Wachowskis, Tarantino understands that a few great set-pieces built up well are more exciting than the relentless, wall to wall action you get from Michael Bay or McG. Here we get one climactic, twenty minute fight sequence, plus a brief but vicious catfight and an imaginative piece of manga animation which gets away with violence and perversion that even Tarantino wouldn't dare film live. Just three action scenes then but they're more effective than all Bad Boys II's two and a half hours worth of flying cars and exploding mansions. Kill Bill also outdoes the Bad Boys for gore - Bay's disintegrating corpses have nothing on Tarantino's climactic orgy of dismemberment, which raises the benchmark for mainstream bloodletting (the Bride tells the survivors, "Leave your limbs, they belong to me now"). Viewers with weak stomachs, you've been warned.
Not to trash Bad Boys II, which is perfectly good Saturday night popcorn fodder but Kill Bill demonstrates the gulf between great movie entertainment and today's efficient blockbusters: between for example Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Mummy. The latter has its pleasures but it's gone from your mind before you've left the cinema. Raides Of The Lost Ark, like Kill Bill, takes the building blocks of pulp and uses them to build something close to art. Kill Bill Vol. 1 isn't an art movie, it will play to multiplex audiences and will hopefully be one of the biggest hits of the year. It's incredibly entertaining and as good a thrill-ride as I've seen in ages. But there's more to it - like all great movies, it stays with you when it's over. Moments stick in your mind: Uma Thurman's face as she's shot; her cold parting words to a victim's daughter; the sheer, eye-popping gore of the manga sequence; a character's screams of agony after losing an arm; a moment of sick black comedy which demonstrates why one should never proposition Japanese schoolgirls; Sonny Chiba's rich, mesmerising performance, which could inspire a movie of its own; the Tokyo sunset; the beauty of Liu's garden; the blood-drenched aftermath of the nightclub massacre; the final line which changes the game radically. This is what going to the movies should be about - it leaves you not just entertained but elated.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 plays exclusively at the Empire, Leicester Square for a week. It opens nationwide on October 17th.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is due in UK cinemas February 27th 2004