Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 10/10/03
Written And Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Martial Arts Direction: Yuen Woo Ping
Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox, Gordon Liu (Liu Chia Hui), Chiaki Kuriyama, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, David Carradine

After being beaten, shot, and left for dead at her own wedding, former assassin Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) wakes from her coma four years later and starts down the road to revenge. Her single-minded task takes her from Texas, to California, to Okinawa, to Tokyo, systematically hunting down and executing those who wronged her. The last person on her list is her sadistically maniacal ex-boss, Bill (David Carradine).

This may very well be the greatest tribute to 1970's cinema ever made, although the majority of the audience seemed to mistake Tarantino's sincere reverence for condescending parody. Judging from the audience reaction, most people thought this film was a comedy. This really annoyed me, although admittedly, without a solid background in American, Italian, and Asian cinema from the 70's, it's easy to lose your way in the cinematic tapestry that Tarantino weaves. Unfortunately, the biggest side effect to being a tribute film is that it seems to lack originality and has a hard time standing on its own merits. Nearly every sequence evokes a sense of nostalgia about a different film, which makes "Kill Bill" fail to gel into a cohesive whole with a distinct identity. In essence, the film looks like a giant collage of Tarantino's biggest influences. Imagine a film with the emotive combat and outrageous bloodletting of a 1970's samurai film, mixed with the thematically opposing kinetic frenzy and physical intricacy of a Shaw Brothers era kung fu flick, told within the structure and philosophy of a 1970's spaghetti western, and finally topped off with Tarantino's trademark sense of sadism and quirkiness, and you'll get an idea of what "Kill Bill" is all about.

The female action angle of the film is wonderful, and Uma Thurman bristles with untamed rage. Much like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone film, she is not so much a person, but a force of nature. The fact that she's nameless throughout the film enforces this point even more. She handles her fight scenes with amazing feeling and agility, albeit with a subtle lack of physical grace. Like a classic samurai or kung fu film, Tarantino prefers to focus more on the mental and emotional aspects of people locked in combat as opposed to the physical and technical aspects, and that's where Ms. Thurman really shines with her performance. The film opens with a spectacular fight between Thurman and Vivica A. Fox and closes with a showdown between Thurman and Lucy Liu, which is sure to leave any female action fan satisfied. Yuen Woo Ping's choreography is excellent as always, although the editing seems surprisingly intrusive for Tarantino, especially when the rest of the film seems laboriously slow.

The second most enjoyable part of the film is seeing the cross-cultural mix of American actors with legendary Asian action icons such as Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu, and not having them relegated to stereotypically demeaning Asian roles. Sonny Chiba nearly steals the show with his delightful portrayal of Hattori Hanzo, and it's wonderful to see Gordon Liu out of retirement and busting heads again. Another highlight is seeing "Battle Royale's" (2000) Chiaki Kuriyama show up in a wonderful role as a lethal schoolgirl. Even more evidence of this cross-cultural breeding appears in Lucy Liu's character, who is of American, Chinese, and Japanese descent. Unfortunately, like many of her other roles, her performance is a bit flat and lifeless, but she's still enjoyable.

Classic cinematic nostalgia is strewn throughout the film, from Bruce Lee's famous track suit in "Game Of Death" (1977), to the arterial blood geysers of "Lone Wolf And Cub" (1972), and the cinematic stylings of "Lady Snowblood" (1973). Even the famous Shaw Brothers zoom is used to excellent effect, a technique which hasn't been seen in over twenty years. And Uma Thurman's classic Asics Tigers pretty much say it all. Unfortunately, for me where the film falls apart is in Tarantino's heavy handed writing, his quirky love affair with pop culture, and his taste for campy ultra-violence. While it's easy for me to admire, appreciate, and respect his work, I simply don't like Tarantino's pretentious and contrived style. His films seem to have an overinflated sense of self importance, and his directorial style is too distracting and self aware. It's as if he's constantly trying to out-geek his audience, and only he gets the joke. However, despite my personal feelings about his writing and direction, there are definitely moments of true cinematic brilliance to be found in the film (even when he's borrowing from someone else). There are also parts of the film that I found infuriating, most notably when the MPAA stepped in and forced Tarantino to edit the largest scene of carnage in the film by cutting it down and showing it in black and white. It completely spoils the tone and impact of the scene and is visually distracting, especially knowing that the Japanese version of the film leaves everything intact. Still, a good time is to be had if you've got a strong stomach for sadistic violence and a warm spot in your heart for classic action cinema.