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Kill Bill: Volume One
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, David Carradine
hen I was asked to review Kill Bill as my first assignment for Stylus, I hesitated. After seeing the previews I had the notion that Quentin Tarantino had made an updated, American version of a 70s Kung Fu flick. Therein lay the polarizing nature of the movie. If I were to slam it, fans of the genre and some fans of Tarantino would write me off as a tight-assed art snob who canít have fun at the movies. Because my prediction was correct, Iíll start off the review with this disclaimer: If you enjoy movies with many well done fights but little plot, especially since in this case the director is intelligent enough to acknowledge the limited substance of his film, see this movie. You will love it.
If, however, youíre more of story-centric movie fan, it may be worth seeing, but itís not worth the hype. There are some great moments in Kill Bill, but on the whole the film is an inconsistent, substance-less mess. Countless reviewers will, and have already, hail Tarantinoís first effort in six years as a brilliant homage to 70s Hong Kong action, Japanese samurai flicks, and the spaghetti western. But, my friends, this is no Big Trouble in Little China. The style of camera shots, a familiar looking set design, a hint of dialogue reminiscent of genre masterpieces... thatís homage. Nearly two hours of direct genre copying, on the other hand, is more like masturbatory idol worship.
Kill Bill does exactly what Tarantino set out to do, taking a no frills revenge tale and showing the wrong being made right. The film opens with a scene of stone-cold brilliance.. A battered Uma Thurman, whoís known only as "The Bride" or by the code name Black Mamba, is laying on the floor of a church house in her wedding dress, listening to the deliberate and haunting monologue of her off-camera attacker (the mysterious Bill). Filmed in black and white, the opening is superbly acted by Thurman, who has almost no dialogue and only a close-up of her upper torso and face to work with. The non-verbal information portrayed is heartbreaking, and the finish genuinely shocking.
Unfortunately, the rest of film, for the most part, does not measure up to the standard initially set. Tarantino does his usual flashback/flashforward business, shooting us ahead four and a half years from the wedding scene. Black Mamba has nursed her injuries, regaining her strength enough to go after her would-be killer and his accomplices, the incomparably named Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (of which Thurman was a part, hence "Black Mamba").
The action is framed in five vignettes, announced by white logos on an all black screen. We join the work in progress on revenge victim #2 (which is vignette #1, although vignettes 3 and 5 deal with revenge victim #1. . .Why? Who the fuck knows?). Victim 2 is Vivica A. Fox, codenamed Copperhead for all of you wondering. This is the scene shown in the previews with the all too humorous situation of a four year old stopping a knife fight by coming home from school. The action is good, the dialogue not.
Many of the high points of Tarantinoís past films came from cool, snappy dialogue. In some parts of Kill Bill, however, the coolness factor seems manufactured and the writing tries too hard. Whereas the ice cold interplay between Lucy Liu and an underling later on in the flick feels organic, the word exchange between Black Mamba and Copperhead is artificial camp. Whether or not the campy effect is intended is debatable, but ironically Tarantino does not go over the top enough for the dialogue to be comical.
The second chapter is mediocre as well, showing the recovery of the Bride. Daryl Hannah makes a botox-laden appearance as California Mountain Snake, the dog called off by Bill when she attempts to kill the comatose Thurman. The scene with her moves about as fast as her paralyzed facial muscles.
Moving on, Thurman narrates the back-story of O-Ren Ishii (for all those still keeping score at home, Codename: Cottonmouth) against the backdrop of anime. This vignette is the best of the film, and perhaps worth the price of admission alone. Donít worry, Iím not an anime fanboy, but this piece of Kill Bill is genius. All the soul and character identification that comes from a great revenge plot is (finally) present. Unfortunately, our sympathies are directed towards the enemy of Thurman, rather than the protagonist herself. With Ishiiís rise to prominence explained, Tarantino takes us to his most successful tip of the cap to Kung Fu/Samurai genres instead of continuing directly to the Mamba vs. Cottonmouth showdown.
Although slow, the meeting between Black Mamba and Hattori Hanzo is a perfect representation of the warrior looking for guidance from an old master. Hanzoís character is superbly acted by Sonny Chiba (a Japanese action legend), and their dialogue provides some of the few lighter moments of the movie. Now equipped with a badass samurai sword, introduced with such reverence by Tarantino that it carries a holy air, The Bride sets out to get even with Ishii.
Vignette #5 is the big payoff over which action fans are creaming their collective jeans. Thurman fights an army of yakuza underlings commanded by O-Ren, a confrontation filmed Samurai-style all the way with (happily) few wire effects. The one on one scenes are spectacular, especially the fight between Mamba and the psychotic Japanese schoolgirl Go Go Yubari. Yubari is one of the truly fascinating characters of Kill Bill. I only wished she had more screen time. The everyone vs. Thurman showdown is monotonous, with lopped off body parts and power-sprayed blood intended to evoke humor. I thought it was just plain boring. Also, there is the downside of ninety percent of The Brideís attackers doing the Power Ranger-henchman shuffle in the background, allowing her to face one or two fighters at a time rather than the whole crowd.
Then the movie ends. Bill is not killed, and you have to wait four months for the next installment (Thank you Miramax). Thurman has dealt with two of five assailants, and the other three are saved for next time. Thanks for your nine bucks and weíll see you in February.
There are many things to like in Kill Bill-- excellent shots, good fights, and a kick-ass score (RZA still has some of that shaolin magic and Tarantino is great when it comes to picking old gems). But at base itís an empty, inconsistent half of a movie. Some parts are brilliant, others tedious, and the split for cash just a slap in the face. Kill Bill is probably worth seeing, but if youíre seeing it for the revenge plot or genre homage, rent The Outlaw Josey Wales instead and go for the real thing instead of its celebration.
By: Kevin Worrall
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