Movies We Like
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is pop culture in a blender and on speed, particularly the culture of violent 1970s B Movies and exploitation films. It’s a comic book for movie nerds. It’s a who’s who, name the movie, appreciate the genre, video store game. More importantly it goes beyond its exploitation genre - it’s actually a mesmerizing, funny, elegant film. It all works beautifully, unlike its sequel Kill Bill: Vol 2, which was a mess. KB:V1 is an epic, bloody, action masterpiece.
KB:VI and KB:V2 were apparently intended to be one film, but they grew so big they were separated. Luckily the best stuff is in KB:V1. Both films jump around in sequence, but can be viewed and followed separately. Unfortunately for KB:V2 the late actor David Carradine as Bill is required to give long and tedious monologues. He was not a very good actor and long lines of dialogue were not his strong suit. (Imagine how interesting it would have been if Tarantino had gotten his first choice for the role, Warren Beatty?) Also where KB:V1 is clearly a riff on pop culture (films and television) of the '70s and early '80s, it’s sharp and focused. KB:V2 is all over the place, even adding Film Noir to the mix, not to mention the amount of minor characters with pointlessly long scenes of their own.
KB:V1 is a revenge film - those were big in the '70s, from Death Wish to I Spit On Your Grave, Ms. 45, and Lady Snowblood (the last three being "woman’s revenge" stories) are all referenced in the Kill Bill films. As a woman known only as The Bride (her real name, whenever mentioned, is bleeped out on screen), Uma Thurman throws herself into the physical and demanding role wonderfully. She also shared a co-story credit with Tarantino. Waking from a coma we slowly learn that The Bride was part of a hit-team known as The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Her colleagues beat her, killing her unborn baby, the father being their evil leader Bill. Now she is seeking vengeance one by one.
I think the two main set pieces are two of the greatest fights in screen history (with apologies to Old Boy and The Ninth Configuration). In the first The Bride takes on Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in her home. It’s a brutal bout, with a pause as Vernita’s young daughter's school bus stops out front. The Bride seems to a have a momentary sympathy for her foe's motherhood, but she continues with the beating anyway (rumors have always said that Tarantino has considered another revenge flick with Vernita’s daughter being the grown-up hero).
After a Japanese Anime-styled sequence that introduces O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) with Ennio Morricone music blaring, The Bride goes to Okinawa to get a custom-made sword from Hanzo (Japanese samurai star Sonny Chiba). Before a fabulously stylized sword fight with O-Ren, The Bride takes on literally about a hundred of her followers, The Crazy 88 (I’m no judge of a crowd, but it’s gotta be at least fifty fighters she slaughters, maybe there were 88 of them). It’s one of the most epic fight scenes ever recorded to film. The Bride uses all manner of violence to kill each opponent (including the schoolgirl-dressed Chiaki Kuriyama of Battle Royale fame, another utra-violent uber-epic).
The movie begins with the Shaw Brothers ShawScope logo (Hong Kong fight film producers of Five Fingers Of Death, among hundreds of other movies), from there the references come fast and furious. There’s spaghetti westerns, Japanese yakuza films, blaxplotation, grindhouse, chop-sockey, etc. Some references are obvious: Thurman wears Bruce Lee’s Game Of Death tracksuit, and her list looks like the one in Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. The movie sites hundreds of other random references from the Australian coma horror flick Patrick to the Swedish revenge movie Thriller: A Cruel Picture. There’s a little from Dead And Buried, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters, and Lone Wolf And Cub. Bernard Herman’s eerie whistling theme to the little seen Twisted Nerve even pops up.
Tarantino has been accused by his critics of being a "cut & paste" thief, of only being able to reference others. But Kill Bill is more than a rip-off job, it’s a tribute to and light years beyond the films he loves. Tarantino is doing something right, because Thurman and the other actresses (Liu, Fox, and in KB:V2, Daryl Hannah) give the best performances of their careers. Intersecting those "woman’s revenge" films that Tarantino references are usually women seeking revenge for a sexual crime, not the case here. The Bride seeks revenge for an inside job done on her by her own crew. Actually though these badasses are women. Their womanhood is not an issue, it’s a given. In an age where Indiana Jones or Jason Bourne are still constantly having to rescue their love interests, even with maternal instincts these women are in charge of their destiny and are as deadly, if not more so, than the men.
The second half of film history (1960-) is made up of great films referencing the films before them. The incredibly influential directors of the French New Wave were imitating the American crime B-movies and Noir films that made such a vivid impression on that group.Truffaut went on to do a number of Hitchcock inspired films (as had the less admired American director Brian De Palma). Acclaimed directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have spent their careers trying to emulate the films of their youth. The Indiana Jones films are nothing more than a mash-up of the best of Saturday afternoon serials. Spielberg and producer George Lucas put their own twist on it and made the ultimate Saturday afternoon serial.
With Kill Bill: Vol 1 Tarantino took five steps forward as a visual storyteller. His previous goes as a director, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown (omitting his lame short in the anthology film Four Rooms), were much more script and actor oriented and were much smaller in scope. Tarantino took some steps backward with the next Kill Bill film and with his segment Death Proof in the overly long Grindhouse film, but finally hit hard again with his excellent WWII re-imagining Inglourious Basterds. Hopefully Tarantino will continue to grow as a filmmaker. And hopefully, if Tarantino does ever make Kill Bill: Vol 3, it’ll be closer to Vol 1 then Vol 2.