[Deep Focus]
Kill Bill Vol. 1

All out of bubblegum

Movie Credits:

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Cinematography by Robert Richardson

Edited by Sally Menke

Production design by Yohei Taneda and David Wasco

Art direction by Daniel Bradford

Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Sonny Chiba

USA, 2003

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Screened 10/8/03 at Loews E-Walk, New York, NY

Reviewed 10/9/03

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Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino's first directorial effort since 1997's Jackie Brown. It's a miasma of intentions, influences and attitudes — here Tarantino seems hell-bent on making an action star out of Uma Thurman; on aping the conventions of Japanese samurai movies, Hong Kong action, and even anime; on paying homage to some of the most obscure influences on his personal aesthetics; on sharing the idiosyncracies of his record collection; and on shooting the most hellaciously violent action set-piece in the history of Hollywood cinema. The result is a movie of surface flash and superficial appeal, an improbably entertaining race through the cinema-addled mind of an action addict. But for all that, it has more significant undercurrents. In its wild-eyed eclecticism, its earnest caucasian synthesis of culturally differing narrative modes, Kill Bill is an electrifying invocation of the mysterious cathartic power of the lowdown genre potboiler — the fine art of the lowbrow.

Thurman stars as the film's only central figure, a Woman With No Name with a vendetta against a small group of highly skilled thugs who raided her wedding party and left her for dead on the wooden floor of a Texas church. Bill is the figurehead of the group of assassins for whom The Bride is gunning; in fine exploitation style, she plans to take them out one by one — though Tarantino takes the liberties you'd expect with narrative chronology. In depicting her quest for vengeance, he walks viewers through a striking array of genre conventions. In capsule form, and conspicuously virtuoso style, he delivers an abbreviated anime picture, a tiny rape-revenge film, and a Jackie Chan-style melee blowout. (One wonders if Kill Bill Vol. 2 will include a fight with zombies interrupted by a softcore porn interlude.) Even the decision to split the film into two parts, at first glance a marketing-driven move, starts to make sense in context. For one thing, the Asian films from which Tarantino takes ample inspiration tend to be more episodic than their Hollywood counterparts. (Just try tackling, for example, Lone Wolf and Cub, in either its movie or manga versions.) For another, the gimmick tends to rouse a little appropriately cheap excitement, particularly when a minor cliffhanger is deployed right before the “directed by” credit hits the screen. Right now, Kill Bill feels kind of like one of those special two-part episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, where Steve Austin goes after Bigfoot, or spacemen.

Interestingly, I felt much more unsatisfied by the cynical from-square-one packaging of The Matrix Reloaded than by the last-minute rejiggering of Kill Bill. It helps that Tarantino is pretty much right on point for the duration of this one. Coming in as skeptical as I did, the first reel was actually a little irritating, with the director's aggressive showboating dominating the narrative. But the story eventually settles down a little. (“Settles down,” in this context, is a decidedly relative description of what the film does, but still.) Specifically, the long sequence depicting Uma Thurman's escape from the hospital where she's laid up, comatose, following the wedding-day attack, comprises what is probably the best material Tarantino has yet committed to film — importantly, it's the stretch of Kill Bill where he abandons the shotgun-style exhibitionism long enough to get in close to a desperate character. The resulting action and subsequent denouement — and the long tangent that interrupts it — is delightfully audacious.

Splitting the film at the middle does seem to have thrown off the narrative rhythm. When the story slows down for The Bride's visit to Okinawa, where she hangs out with a sushi-bar operator played by martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, the movie stretches out to a degree that might feel more natural in the originally conceived opus than in this relatively tight 110-minute picture. And, granted, the entire film operates at a clear big-budget remove from the gritty, DIY aesthetic of the mostly foreign movies that it mimics. It becomes critically important that Tarantino bring his own L.A. white-bread flair to the proceedings, and the man does not disappoint. He puts his money to good use, with some delightful flourishes, particularly in the audio mix — the perfectly timed pitter-pat of the feet of a dozen swordsmen as they hustle up or down a set of wooden stairs becomes a truly witty sound effect.

Of course, it never makes sense to underestimate the influence that great collaborators bring to bear on a director's work, even such a clear auteur as Tarantino. Think of cinematographer Robert Richardson and film editor Sally Menke as his twin Samurai bodyguards. Kill Bill is one of the best-looking movies I've ever seen shot in the Super 35 process; through a combination of on-set photographic techniques and judicious use of digital tweaking in post-production, the film gets rich, saturated colors and deep black shadows that put a very contemporary sheen on the material. It's startling to see how glossy and rich the geysers of blood appear on screen in the last few reels — that is, until the appearance of a lengthy sequence that's printed in blah black and white in an apparent sop to the MPAA ratings board (which might have considered hara-kiri when presented with the Hobson's choice of doling out an NC-17 to one of Disneymax's big end-of-year releases or playing nice with Q.T. and letting him suggest a compromise). A swordfight that takes place in silhouette in front of a rich blue backdrop is evocative of Seijun Suzuki, and is dazzling in the purity of its color. And Tarantino seems to have no intention of letting go of Menke, who has edited all of his films to date (including the “The Man From Hollywood” segment of the ill-received Four Rooms). She is not only a deft co-conspirator in his efforts to assemble a film that makes visual sense as it flits forward and back in time, but also has quite a sense for action choreography. An early hand-to-hand struggle between Thurman and Vivica A. Fox, well, it hurts. And the insanely over-the-top swordfights at the House of Blue Leaves never feel forced or overly complicated, and are anchored with the sure sense of physical space that comes from Tarantino's imaginative camera placement and a finely tuned sense for the kinetics of the screen geography.

That fight sequence, in which Thurman takes on dozens of menacing thugs, is a thing of strange, grisly beauty. It plays more like a Jackie Chan film, for example, than anything Jackie Chan has actually made in Hollywood, while simultaneously amping up the gonzo action. It's followed, yin-and-yang style, by a scene that takes place in a tranquil, snow-blanketed garden (both Thurman and Lucy Liu give career-best performances here). I'm terribly curious to know how mainstream audiences will react to this — the folks who somehow fail to recognize the homage to Robert Englund's character in Eaten Alive, who don't recognize the spiked-ball-and-chain-wielding Chiaki Kuriyama — in a schoolgirl uniform! — from her role in Battle Royale, and who won't be able to pinpoint the use of a song from the great Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 over the end credits. You know, moviegoers who aren't used to seeing geysers of blood spewing out of the necks of decapitated bodies. But for anyone who can relate, Kill Bill makes dazzling use of its genre tropes — the sense of honor and treachery among warriors and thieves, the wild stylishness that uses nearly surreal Grand Guignol flourishes as representations of emotional turmoil — to tell an affecting story in the emotional shorthand of the world's collective B-movie subconscious. For my money, it's the year's most awesomely exciting narrative strategy — one of the first films I've seen in a long time that goes absolutely electric on the screen. If this thing makes bank, that'll be quite a feat: Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the governor of California, but Quentin Tarantino is its ambassador of exploitation culture.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer