Autumn is traditionally the in-between time at the box office when the folks at studios rest after having spent themselves on big-hyped summer films that have since faded away. It's a quiet, schlocky-kind of a cinematic downtime when not much really goes on. In the Fall of 2003, people are waiting for the Return Of The King, that other Matrix sequel, or the new batch of holiday fare.
This means it’s perfect timing for Quentin Tarantino to shake the system up a bit and release his fourth film, Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is the first part of a larger blood-drenched epic. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is due out in February of 2004 (another slow season). Kill Bill was spliced into two because Tarantino ran over with the film's length and production budget. As a result, Miramax hopes to make more money from the production splintering the film. It really isn't a bad idea either, because this is a large, intense body of work that can be physically draining after viewing.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a work of passion. Tarantino loves the martial arts films of the 70s. Throughout his career, he has taken great pains to incorporate his personal passions into his craft, and his go-round though thuganomics has been painstakingly crafted. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a homage to martial art films, with elements of anime, samurai epics, and gangster cinema thrown in for flavor.
Tarantino's latest film is based on retribution. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a pregnant assassin who is shot and left for dead on her wedding day. Her groom and the attendees of her wedding are killed and she hangs on in a coma. Four years later, she awakens and a bloody trail of mayhem, death and bloody vengeance is enacted.
The Bride is also known as Black Mamba, a one-time member of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad. It is obvious that the mysterious Bill (played in the shadows by David Carradine) has used this squad of assassins to help him bring the Bride down.
After the Bride awakens (both physically and metaphorically), she sets off on her lonely path of revenge. The first person on her list is the Copperhead, Vernita Green. Green (played by Vivica Fox), is a retired assassin now raising a young daughter in suburbia. However, this makes no difference to Black Mamba, who calls on her at home. This is the point where the film gets its legs.
As the two assassins duke it out, we get an early sampling of Tarantino's trademark; funny dialog wrapped in lots of violence. The fight scenes between Fox and Thurman have everything: breaking glass, busted furniture, knives, punches, kicks and lots of rage. However, Tarantino pauses the melee just long enough to add funny comedic interaction between these ruthless assassins.
After dispatching Copperhead, Black Mamba travels to Okinawa to enlist the help of Hattori Hanzo, a retired mentor, sword-maker and warrior. Hanzo is played subtly by Martial Arts icon, Sonny Chiba. Tarantino gives Chiba some really great stuff to work with; his character is similar to many of Mfume's roles in Kurosawa films. He's a mentor, swordsman, teacher and a brave warrior. In fact, after a terrifically funny comedic introduction, we see a more serious side of Hattori. He initially resists Bride's request for training an assistant. Finally, the teacher brands her a special sword for the long struggle that lay ahead.
Following a month of training with Hattori, the Bride sets her sights on O-Ren Ishii, the leader of the Tokyo crime syndicate. Her back story is introduced to via anime, and the use of Japanese animation here is extraordinary. This artistic technique brilliantly accomplishes several things: First it provides a visual, bloody and ferocious feast for the audience. Second, it is a great respite from the rough and ready pace of the film. It also is a way for Quentin Tarantino to describe O-Ren's bloody origin without having to film some gory scenes and undoubtedly fight with the MPAA over rating the film. Anime is a great way to propel the story without sacrificing artistic license.
O-Ren was one of the Deadly Viper Assassins responsible for the Bride's shooting. She is one of Bill's best assets, and for good reason. O-Ren Ishii uses all of her skill guile and wickedness to overtake several crime bosses and gain control of the Yakuza.
With a terrible swift sword, Ishii, assisted by her lawyer/assistant Sofi, her protégé, Go Go, and her warriors, the Crazy 88s solidify their rule over Tokyo's underworld. In a nod to Bruce Lee films, the director has festooned the Crazy 88s with goofy Green Hornet Masks.
A strength of all previous Tarantino flicks is his development of strong protagonist versus antagonist relationships. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is no exception. Early on in the film, the Vernita/Bride relationship is capably scripted and developed. Things really hit their stride with the conflict resolution between O-Ren Ishii and The Bride.
Both assassins are on equal footing with fighting agility and ability. Both are victims of pain and anguish. Both have led hurt, scarred lives. Subsequently, thier scenes together are scripted with off-beat, dark lines that are combative, full of discourse, and wickedly fun. The confrontation between them holds the whole film together. Liu steals some thunder with her calculating looks, spiteful coldness and general ruthlessness. It is refreshing to see a struggle between two women who rage and kick ass so well. With O-Ren, Mr. Tarantino has created the perfect foil for the Bride.
By the end of Vol. 1, Tarantino is in his element. He uses no special effects for the epic fight sequence, which is action-packed and non-stop. There are plenty of body blows, swordplay and martial arts acrobatics to please everyone. And it keeps on coming.
Tarantino has done some amazing things here. First, he has cinematically made a really great film. The acting and the action are solid. Tarantino has replaced his heavy-handed pop culture schtick, as well as the candor and blunt frankness, with knives, swords and fists. He has also managed to skillfully move the camera with the action in such a way that you don't actually notice.
It will be good to see more of David Carradine and Mike Madsen in Volume 2. Carradine's career will no doubt rebound from the calm dastardliness he brings to this role. Daryl Hannah was wicked and underused in this film, however she will be back as the one-eyed California Mountain Snake. And she may just turn out to be the trickiest of all the Deadly Viper Assassins to be dispensed with.
It is at this point where reviewing Kill Bill Vol.1 gets tricky. How does a director end a film that has been truncated? It's a fine line to walk. One sloppy edit could bring it all down. But Tarantino masterfully picks a good time to put the first part of this epic to rest.
Those who love martial arts films, spaghetti westerns or gangster films will eat this film up. Anyone expecting a second coming of Pulp Fiction, with cute pop culture references, will be caught off guard. Also, if you are squeamish, then stay home because Kill Bill Vol. 1 is an exhilarating and moving bloodbath of violence and steel.