Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2004) Movie Review

The good news is that Quentin Tarantino is back after 7 years. And apparently he took the lengthy hiatus post-“Jackie Brown” to learn how to stage and shoot action scenes like a pro, and not a director intentionally writing his scripts to avoid such sequences. People familiar with Tarantino’s oeuvre must agree that his “action scenes” have been limited to gunfights and interrogation or “beat-down” scenes. With “Kill Bill”, Tarantino has learned the art of staging physical combat, using martial arts and sword fighting. The bad news is that Tarantino still writes like a video store clerk with no college education, and his dialogue still sounds unnatural. Also, his characters are still not real people, but rather mishmash cliché and stereotypes he’s created out of cliché and stereotypes he saw in movies.

Not that any of the above matters, because “Kill Bill” is tremendous fun. Insanely violent, perversely perverse, and hopelessly in love with its own genre, the film stars Uma Thurman (“Gattaca”) as the Bride, a former assassin whose detour into normal life is spoiled by her old colleagues, members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Codenamed Black Mamba, the Bride was about to get married when her former squad members broke up the party, slaughtered everyone in the church, and put a bullet in the Bride’s head. (In a funny gag, we never know the Bride’s real name, because whenever someone says it the name is *beeped* out.) Left for dead, the Bride wakes up from a coma 4 years later determined to slice herself some payback. And I do mean slice.

If you’ve seen and liked any of Tarantino’s previous 3 films then you’re well aware that his movies aren’t about real life, or about real people, and shouldn’t have any problems with “Kill Bill” as a result. As with his other films, Tarantino has elected to construct the movie without any regard to proper chronology. But there is less jumping around the timeline here than there was in “Pulp Fiction”. The movie opens with the Bride taking on, and killing, Vivica A. Fox (“Boat Trip”), whose character is actually the Bride’s second victim. The first was/is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

Volume one, running at about 95 minutes, is more about the Bride and O-Ren, whose past is shown in a long, bloody anime sequence that makes “Fist of the North Star” look like child’s play. David Carradine plays the titular Bill — or rather, voices Bill, since we never see Carradine’s face during all of volume one.

Showing surprising physicality is Uma Thurman, who supposedly shares credit with Tarantino for creating the character of “The Bride”. Thurman is fabulous here, selling the martial arts and swordsmanship with aplomb. I’m sure it must have been difficult for her, since it is said that it takes decades to master a katana, and I’m sure she only had months. Even so, she succeeds in the role and even manages to inject some humanity and vulnerability into what could have been played as a Lara Croft wannabe. In her standoff with O-Ren, Thurman shows such vulnerability that one isn’t always sure she will even survive this quest of hers. You can practically see the fear trembling in the Bride’s eyes.

There is no doubt that Tarantino has improved by leaps and bounds as an action director with “Kill Bill”. The film credits Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (“The Matrix”) as being an “advisor”, although I can’t really say if I saw any of Woo-ping’s trademark stunts here. There are plenty of invisible wireworks, but the real treat is when the swords come out. That’s when the bodycount starts to rise to an astounding level and the blood flows so freely that at one point Tarantino switches to black and white just, one suspects, to save the MPAA the headache of defying their Miramax Gods and slapping a NC-17 rating on the film. The highlight, no doubt, is the teahouse sequence, which swallows up the movie’s last 30 minutes.

As many people may know, “Kill Bill” was originally a 3-hour movie that Tarantino and Miramax, in their infinite wisdom, decided to chop into two movies and release as volumes one and two. I’m sure the thought of scamming the viewing audience for double the profits didn’t figure into it. Right? Although considering that Tarantino’s last film was 7 years ago, Miramax may be trying to squeeze as much money out of their wunderkind as they can before he disappears down yet another California sinkhole. In any case, I find the gimmick to be a bit disingenuous. After all, if the producers and Tarantino were really concern about whether audiences would be willing to sit through a 3-hour movie, the mammoth success of the “Lord of the Rings” films (all well over 3 hours long apiece) should have put their minds at ease.

“Kill Bill” is one of the best action movies to come out in a while. Even though the film has, essentially, only two real action scenes — once in the beginning and later at the teahouse — it’s still a highly enjoyable movie. To be honest I never thought Tarantino could direct like this. Oh sure, he’s good with snappy patter about cheeseburgers and the choice of color as a codename, and he seems to manage limited shoot-outs okay, but he’s never shown a predilection for martial arts before. These scenes require lengthy camera set ups and patience, and it’s probably an indication that Tarantino has matured as a filmmaker and person that he’s able to make “Kill Bill” at all.

Then again, “Kill Bill” is still very juvenile when you get right down to it.

Quentin Tarantino (director) / Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
CAST: Uma Thurman …. The Bride
David Carradine …. Bill
Lucy Liu …. O-Ren Ishii
Daryl Hannah …. Elle Driver
Vivica A. Fox …. Vernita Green
Sonny Chiba …. Hattori Hanzo
Chiaki Kuriyama …. Go Go Yubari
Julie Dreyfus …. Sofie Fatale
Gordon Liu …. Johnny Mo

Buy Kill Bill: Volume 1 on DVD