Kill Bill: Volume 1
Here at last, after a six-year wait, is Quentin Tarantino's new film, "Kill Bill: Volume 1." The New York Times headlined its review "Blood Bath and Beyond," which is probably the most accurate description you could make of "Kill Bill: Volume 1." Tarantino, everybody's darling, has made only four features in his career to date ("Reservoir Dogs," 1992; "Pulp Fiction," 1994; "Jackie Brown," 1997, are the other three), but each of them has been an event. "Pulp Fiction," in fact, a delicious comedy that not only twisted but strangled Hollywood's conventional notions of filmmaking, was surely the most influential film of the 1990s. No one since has made a movie without showing in some way a debt to that remarkable movie. And "Jackie Brown," a commercial failure, will in my view come to be recognized as a minor masterpiece, his best and deepest film to date.
"Kill Bill: Volume 1" (the film, originally three hours, was cut in two by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, no doubt to enhance its grossing potential, with "Volume 2" to be released next February) is the story of The Bride/Black Mamba (Uma Thurman), who on her wedding day "in a little chapel in El Paso, Texas" is the only survivor of a mass assassination that kills everyone else in the wedding party. Oh, and she was pregnant at the time, though we are uncertain of the baby's fate. But she has been in a four-year coma from her injuries, and only wakes as this film begins. During her coma a slimy hospital orderly sold her repeatedly for sex, a crime she rectifies bloodily when she wakes.
Thurman was evidently a member of the assassination squad, though we don't know why her own partners attacked her; but now she begins her quest to kill, in turn, each of its other four members - three women and Bill - crossing them off her hand-written list as she goes. "Volume 1" takes us through her first two: Copperhead, played by Viveca A. Fox and known now as suburban housewife Vernita Green; and O-Ren Ishii, or Cottonmouth, in the person of Lucy Liu, who has become the head of Tokyo's Yakuza gangs. Everyone, and I mean everyone in this film, is a martial-arts expert; in what must be an homage to Monty Python's encounter between King Arthur and the Black Knight, Tarantino gives us the slashiest, bloodiest series of encounters in ages, with heads, arms and legs rolling around the set like bowling balls and pins. At one point Thurman even takes on eighty yakuza in a night club and dispatches them all.
Tarantino has wisely avoided any but the most minimal use of "Matrix"-like gravity-defying stunts, and the film is the better for it. He uses anime-type artwork to bridge the expository sections, and classic 1930s-style maps and illustrations to let us follow Thurman's quest around the world. The film is in both English and Japanese, though in either language everyone talks in wonderfully stilted martial-arts-speak. And there are little hidden treasures from his earlier films, in bits and gestures and moments, that will be a gold mine for Tarantino fans to compare notes on.
Thurman is more stunning than ever; her long, bony face has matured into a classic beauty, with that lovely, lightly-beaked nose now more prominent than before; and her slim, long-legged body has a classic athlete's grace. We're told that she and her fellow actors trained for months to learn and master their swordsmanship and acquire physical stamina. It shows here, and Tarantino isn't forced into cutting away from action, as so many other directors must because their people are clumsy or inept. Here they are believable enough for us to accept them as skilled warriors.
What faults there are in the movie come from a lack of understandable motivation; I think that had Miramax left it alone we would have seen a more powerful film, with explication and resolution more visible and therefore more satisfying. As it is, we're not convinced enough of the meaning of The Bride's revenge, when we have to wait months for the explanation. Nevertheless, Tarantino has not let us down; the film is great fun. It is what we might call the classic Tarantino, where everything that happens on screen is presented absolutely straight, while the filmmaker sits above the action pulling his strings of irony. Nothing is possible, but everything is believable. It's come to be his trademark as a filmmaker. We can only wonder where he will go from here.