Kill Bill: Vol. 1 Review
After the universally praised Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino has perhaps become a little more “niche” with his products. Jackie Brown was not a hit, and despite the long promised Inglorious Bastards (now finally a go) his next effort was his personal tribute to his favourite genres. Covering Samurai, Western, and Kung Fu genres, with a little Grindhouse experimentation (later, of course, to be fully explored in Death Proof) Kill Bill is an electrifying, gory, and kinetic film which covers the story of one woman's search for revenge.
For those few people who don't know, Kill Bill is released in two volumes. This is the review of Volume One. Volume Two will appear on the site in the next few days.
Volume one is essentially the set up for a more talky second volume. Conceived as an extended introduction to the whole affair, the first film follows our heroine (the bride) as she wakes up from a bullet induced coma. We discover that at a wedding chapel, whilst she is marrying a person unknown, an assassination squad led by the titular Bill carry out a massacre where nine people are killed. As Bill (at this point unseen) stands over the helpless Bride with trigger cocked she tells him “the baby is yours”. The trigger is pulled, and thus we have the setup.
Having lost her baby, and feeling she has nothing left to live for, The Bride sets off on a violent and bloody revenge mission. The film is divided into five chapters, during which the Bride manages to kill two of the members of the squad - whilst also narrating a little back story of Yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii, one of her main targets. The film ends with the Bride heading back from Japan having fulfilled the first part of her mission, and having left a message for Bill - who then reveals something that the Bride does not yet know. The setup for volume two is thus completed.
It is so very difficult to review one volume of Kill Bill without constantly alluding to the second one. The films are so much a part of each other, if totally different in style and tone, that they really are one whole movie (in fact, the Weinstein company owns the rights to Kill Bill : The Whole Bloody Affair which is how Tarantino originally envisioned his magnum opus. But, until this cut sees the light of day, the films are two separate entities and need to be treated as such.
And what an introduction Volume One is! From the very first scene to the last, the film is an absolute thrill ride that just doesn't stop. Tarantino brings a kinetic energy to proceedings that simply leave the viewer breathless. He also introduces a dizzying hybrid of styles that should, by rights, leave the viewer confused - but somehow in the hands of this cinematic-literate director, the result seems as natural as any conventional movie. The non-linear structure, of course, is something that Tarantino devotees are very used to - and although the device is not used here as extensively as it was in Pulp Fiction it is still present. But there is more to Tarantino's distinctive style here than that. He uses over saturated colour, black and white, faux-scratchy prints, anime, and many other filmic techniques to tell his story.
Just the opening scenes are the perfect example of this. Opening with a Scratchy “Shawscope” logo and a mono soundtrack (a tribute to the Shaw Brothers studio), the action opens to a black and white scene in the wedding chapel and the shooting of the Bride. From here, we open into the vivid over saturated colour of typical sixties exploitation films, before - at various points during the rest of the film - we lapse back into Black and White and even Anime at one point.
This is certainly self indulgent, and it is hard to believe that your average cinema goer is going to understand half the in-jokes and cinema references that Tarantino throws in here (although it's always good to watch a film that begins with a “Star Trek” quote). But this doesn't matter. You don't need to understand the influences that the film has to enjoy it, and if you just buckle yourself in and go with the flow, enjoy it you will.
The film has been criticised for its violence, and it certainly is excessively so - and this will put a lot of people off. In Reservoir Dogs and even Pulp Fiction the violence is often more implied than shown, but in Kill Bill Volume One the violence is both implicit and over the top. We witness a graphic disembowelling, numerous limb and head lopping, arterial sprays of blood, and other monstrosities. All this is done, however, with gleeful excess. Even with the excessive blood, or perhaps because of it, the violence never really makes one wince or feel sick. Unlike, say, Apocolypto the violence here is deliberately cartoonish. Even the trapping of one character's head in a door frame, with the door repeatedly being slammed on to his head, is done in a way that never quite really feels as visceral as it might.
All this is rather strange, as even with all the violence present, this is still the cut version of the film. The Japanese version only runs a minute longer, but the essential “House of Blue Leaves” fight is presented in colour and in its entirety. That version also contains many small additions of violent moments that are cut from the international version we now receive on Blu-ray. Having seen the Japanese cut, it has always been a mystery to me exactly why some scenes are cut and others are left in. However, despite the omissions, the film really is not affected too much, and until the Japanese release a Blu-ray of their cut, this is currently the only HD option that you have.
The first film is so kinetic, so fast moving, that there is very little time indeed for characterisation. That is resolved for the second volume. The only character that really gets some breathing space in this film is that of The Bride (Uma Thurman), and although I am not a huge fan of the actress it is certainly true that she gives a bravura performance here. There are very few moment when she is really required to act (the scene where she wakes up to find she is no longer pregnant is one, and her persuading of Hanso to make her a sword is the other), but when called upon she comes across as very believable, truly bringing out the character underneath the cold exterior. The rest of the time, however, you have to believe that here is a woman who lives by a strange twisted code of honour, and who is capable of extracting revenge in the coldest most calculating way possible. And she certainly does convey this on screen. This is a woman you certainly wouldn't want to mess with and at no point do you ever feel anything but pure empathy with the character she plays. You feel for her, and you are rooting for her, whilst also believing totally in what she brings to the screen. It may not be OSCAR winning material but it is hard to imagine any other actress bringing what Thurman does to the role.
Apart from her, however, all other actors in volume one are merely supporting characters. We get brief glimpses of people who will appear more extensively in volume two (Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen and others), and the only other major character (O-Ren Ishii) mainly develops her character through Anime. When seen as a flesh and blood character, she is absolutely chilling (just imaging sitting at the table during the Yakuza council and defying her), but there is not really enough here for her to get her acting teeth into.
But this matters not a jot. If you see Kill Bill Volume One as a setup for the story, as a cinematic thrill ride, and an electrifying tribute to many different genres of movies - then this is nothing but a complete success. The film is exciting, visceral, clever, literate, violent, and breathtaking. It features some stunningly composed scenes (see the picture section for more on these), and is the sign of a director who is clearly in love with the material that he is presenting to us. If you can cope with the excessive violence (and really, it is so cartoonish that very little offense is likely to be caused) then Tarantino has delivered a superb experience. It may not have the universal appeal of his first two cinematic outings - but I would argue in many ways Kill Bill is the equal of these, and perhaps Tarantino's most underrated film.