Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (***½)

Posted on October 18th, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Click here to see the review of Kill Bill: Vol 2.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film as a director. Well, third-and-a-half would be more appropriate, since this is really the first half of one film, not the first film in a film/sequel progression. So far he’s batting .500 in my book. I *loved* Reservoir Dogs, and still watch it once every year or two, even though it’s a tough, gritty ordeal. I’ve never been able to watch Pulp Fiction all the way through, finding it to be a moronic, but more slickly Hollywood, pale imitation derived from Dogs. I’ve seen enough movies that I believe I can tell the difference between good films that I just don’t happen to like and bad films. Pulp Fiction may not be a bad film, but it’s sure not good, and certainly not great, and I have always struggled to understand its popularity.

My pet theory is that Pulp Fiction was embraced by those who had heard that Tarantino was a great director, but had never bothered to seek out (or endure sitting through the pain of watching) Reservoir Dogs. I’m pretty neutral about Jackie Brown, in that it was mildly enjoyable when I first saw it, but it was quickly forgotten and I’ve never revisited it.

Which brings us to Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which I enjoyed greatly. There is almost zero prelude or character development in this movie, which jumps immediately into a violent revenge story, and only gives us the slightest of glimpses at the back-story of these characters. And even the back-story is an un-detailed, just-the-facts presentation of events, without any explanation of why. In typical Tarantino fashion, the story is not linear, but is told through flashbacks, memories, and even animated sequences. This is all done masterfully, weaving in the bits and pieces of the story at just the right times, without being dumbed down for (Hollywood’s understanding of) the multiplex audience.

The basic storyline is that The Bride (Uma Thurman) and her entire wedding party, including her unborn child, are slaughtered by her fellow assassins on her wedding day in a small, dusty, clapboard chapel in El Paso. Except that The Bride survives, even though Bill (an unseen David Carradine) administers a point-blank, bullet-to-the-head coup de grace. The Bride ends up in a four year coma, and when she wakes up she realizes she has lost everything except a white-hot need to exact revenge on her former boss and colleagues. The rest of the film follows The Bride as she starts hunting down her former teammates one by one.

In an interesting directorial choice, Uma Thurman’s character is never referred to by a given name in this film, with the exception of one scene where it is uttered twice, but purposely beeped out both times. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to keep her name secret, but it does add to her mystery, and the beeping feels right and actually works within the story rather than being distracting.

The Bride’s quest for revenge involves much hand-to-hand combat, knife fights, and sword fights, but does not involve any Weapons of More-serious Destruction, like guns. This, of course, indicates that the film does not take place in the pseudo-reality of movies set in the real world, but instead is set in a mythical place, where all the assassins use guns when attacking The Bride and her wedding party, but then all of the subsequent revenge fighting is lead-free. This movie could have been over in 10 minutes if even one of the hundreds of world-class bad guys who’s butt’s The Bride kicks would have thought to carry a gun.

Fortunately (from my perspective), the mythical world of Kill Bill is not the digitally rendered, video-game like, heartless, soulless, plastic, lame-ass type of world seen in the Matrix “films”. Instead, it is much like the real world, except for the actions of the characters (and a couple of gravity defying fighting moves), none of whom are digital, and all of whom are sort of honorably stylized and/or stylishly honorable, in that they all seem to live (and die) by some unwritten Assassin’s Code.

For those who don’t already know, Tarantino shot this as one film, but it ended up with a ~4 hour running time, which he was reluctant to cut down. So the studio made the decision to release it as two films, the first out now, the second out early next year. I don’t have a big beef with the split, because I understand that any movie showing in a multiplex with a four hour run time is going to be under-viewed. However, I have a *big* problem with the long delay between the release of the halves. In fact, in my opinion, they should have been released on consecutive weekends, which I think would have set up a kind of harmonic vibration of folks going to see both of them, ending up generating more box office dollars than this artificial delay. You see, since this was conceived as a single film, there is no traditional “end” to Vol. 1, just a stopping point. Nothing is settled or decided, no watersheds are reached, nothing. If you look at the list of film/sequel combinations that are actually watchable, they all have one characteristic in common, which is that each film tells a complete story, and that story is part of a larger continuing story. With Kill Bill: Vol. 1, you get half of a well-told story.

And what a half it is. The sparse dialogue is not trite, not Shakespeare, but a perfect fit for this film. There’s an animated sequence that tells the horrifying story of one of the assassins coming-of-age. The sets, locations, and cinematography are beautiful. The violence and gore start out extreme, soon become over-the-top, evolve to comedically ridiculous, and finally blossom into sublime commentary/homage/satire of the violent film genre. Uma is likeable and lethal in her role, David Carradine does a good job as the unseen but seemingly omnipotent Bill, Daryl Hannah and Vivica A. Fox embody their roles with gusto, and Lucy Liu is suitably Oriental in her role as the…Oriental. I don’t think I will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you that Uma survives this first half, but only some of the rest do.

I deducted a half-star from this rating as penalty for not being to see the whole $%#@$%$# story and thus not knowing if it will actually be good, once the fullness is grokked. However I get the feeling that The Compleat Kill Bill will end up being a four star masterwork, as long as the second half lives up the first half. And it should, since they were shot together and so shouldn’t suffer from any of the creative/artistic mutations that seem to plague the majority of sequels.

So Quentin Tarantino is now 2-2 in my book. Kill Bill is undeniably the work of a director with both a clear artistic vision and the complete command of the medium necessary to tell his story exactly as he envisions it. I’m quite upset that I have to wait until next year to see the rest of the story, but I also think that the anticipation will make the finale all the sweeter.

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