Kill Bill: Volume 1 Movie Review
In the wake of "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," film buffs have come to expect intrepid sub-Hollywood scavenger Quentin Tarantino to bowl us over with ingenious, amped-up, style-blending B-movie off-shoots made with a quantum leap of depth and cinematic panache.
Influenced by cut-rate, under-the-counter samurai imports, spaghetti Westerns and popcorn-munching exploitation flicks of bygone eras, the writer-director's two-part revenge saga "Kill Bill" ("Volume 2" is due in February) has sexy, gritty, droll, deluxe Tarantino élan coming out its ears -- and absurdly grisly dam-bursts of stage blood spurting from other violently severed body parts in ambitious marathon swordfight scenes. But while the picture oozes style (and blood), it comes up short on substance -- which is what has always set Tarantino's grindhouse homages head and shoulders above the pulp pictures that inform them.
Choreographed by both kung-fu genius Yuen Wo-Ping ("The Matrix" movies, "Charlie's Angels," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," etc.) and Japanese Kenjutsu legend Sonny Chiba (who plays an eccentric master sword-maker in the film), these focal-point fights are the culmination of a plot about a sultry, strong-willed former assassin (Uma Thurman) who was left for dead when her employer -- possibly peeved by her resignation, although "Volume 1" is vague on that point -- turned her wedding into a massacre.
Waking up after six years in a coma, The Bride (whose name is bleeped out whenever mentioned in an enigmatic touch of Tarantino whimsy) is out to execute every last one of her former associates who helped kill her groom and guests. After willing the atrophy from her dormant limbs and snuffing a lowlife hospital intern who had been pimping her inert body to perverts, in "Volume 1" The Bride hunts down "Copperhead" (Vivica A. Fox), now a suburban mommy whose young daughter who comes home from school in the middle of their kitchen-knife duel, and O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), a deadly flower of sword-slinging, geisha femininity who has become Tokyo's most feared yakuza mob boss.
(Psychotic, one-eyed hired gun Daryl Hannah, puckered-browed perpetual heavy Michael Madsen and assassin boss David Carradine -- i.e. "Bill" -- are briefly glimpsed in this movie but will apparently meet their fate in "Volume 2.")
Giving a minxy, magnetic performance that speaks of her professional chemistry with Tarantino, Thurman imbibes and embodies the impetus for her murder streak, but save a sense of humor that comes out in the occasional snappy line of dialogue, there's not much depth to The Bride. Her targets too, while played by good actors, are little more than vaguely fleshed-out cartoons -- in one case literally. O-Ren's super-violent childhood backstory is presented as an anime flashback, a decision I suspect was less of a creative nod to Japanese cartoons than it was a way to skirt an NC-17 rating for several gory, blood-gushing murders.
The same editorial/artistic slight-of-hand can be seen in a black-and-white sequence and another in silhouette during the spectacular climactic swordfight, which ranges all over a two-story Japanese restaurant and into a snowy tea garden as The Bride slays literally dozens of Katana-wielding, Kato-masked yakuza on her way to facing off against O-Ren. But while this artifice may have hoodwinked the MPAA, the cumulative gross-out effect of the over-the-top bloodletting -- no matter what visual form it takes, no matter what low-budget Japanese sword-genre flicks inspired it, and no matter how deliberately cheap and silly it looks -- eventually becomes an annoying distraction from the extraordinary, steel-bladed blitz of the fights themselves.
"Kill Bill: Volume 1" does exhibit Tarantino's gift for coalescing idiosyncratic performances, cinematic self-awareness, irregular narrative, creative camerawork and a wide variety of pop-referencing soundtrack music into a shrewd, synergistic whole. But that whole -- or at least this first half of it -- isn't quite the sum of its dynamic parts.