Kill Bill Vol. 1
Somewhat soulless homage to, well, everything else. Nothing like as good as what it's attempting to imitate.
Questionable validity of Kill Bill's claim to be the fourth film from Quentin Tarantino aside, there is an understandable degree of expectation for his return behind the camera. Many have been expecting this to be another slice of hip pop culture goodness ala Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Realising the dangers in this I took my seat expecting only an enjoyable action flick. That I walked out disappointed with only meagre expectations is a troubling thing indeed.
It is at least a film that can be summed up with ease. The Bride (Uma Thurman) is waylaid at her wedding ceremony by a cadre of her ex-associates, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad headed by Bill (David Carradine). They slaughter everyone present, including The Bride's husband to be, the vicar, the organ player, the little blind orphan and several puppies. This lets us know that they are bad assassins, unlike The Bride for some reason. They smack The Bride around and shoot her in the head. This doesn't kill her by some small miracle, but she spends the next four years in a coma. She eventually comes to and decides to start doling out the vengeance.
That's essentially the sum total of what is learned over two and a half-ish hours of cinema. Saying this is plot rather than character driven is something of an understatement. Billed variously as the most violent film ever made and often met with such inane comments as 'a non-stop thrill-packed rollercoaster of a ride', this is Mr. Tarantino's love letter to the styles of films that have made an impact on him, from the Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, film noir, Bruce Lee movies and the hints of the Spaghetti Westerns that look to be expanded in Vol. 2. Whether you care enough to buy a ticket to the second part is another matter entirely.
Kill Bill has quickly picked up an array of fanboys claiming this to be one of the greatest films ever with a fervour rivalled only by The Matrix Reloaded. We were disappointed then and we're disappointed now. I've seen all of the styles and genres that Quentin is throwing at us and far from thinking 'hey, I've seen Battle Royale too! Aren't I clever!' I was thinking that the continual stylistic chopping and changing was at first irritating before settling into a dull rhythm that negates most of the action that takes place at far less frequent intervals than I'd been led to believe.
As to being the most violent movie ever, it more than likely is until a feature length Itchy and Scratchy movie is made, but as it's violence is equally cartoonish as that Simpsons subset if anyone finds this disturbing they ought to be taken away and given a crash course in real life. Limbs are severed, blood fountains out in never ending crimson gushers, tendons are sliced, heads roll. None of it is in the remotest bit disturbing, and Lucy Liu's astonishing claim that the film essentially had to split into two parts on the grounds that anyone seeing the 'whole film' would vomit at the violent horror contained within looks to be utterly and completely wrong. Only time and sick bag sales will tell when the two volumes are inevitably reunited on DVD.
It's this half film structure that's proving to be it's biggest failing. There is no back story to any of the protagonists here and frankly it's only making life more difficult for itself. The Bride may well have reason for vengeance but without knowing anything about the lass other than a lot of people around her died it's nigh on impossible to invest any emotion in her or any other characters. Bill is shown only in fleeting glimpses of a hand or a silhouette, which may have been an effective way of bringing an air of mystery to the character if we didn't already know it was David Carradine.
Stylistically it's a mess that doesn't combine to be greater than the sum of its parts, and it struggles to even be the sum of its parts. Plotwise its only rival in this years vapidity stakes is Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This wouldn't matter too much if the action could carry it over the cinematic hill, but for a variety of reasons this falls right down, perhaps breaking Tarantino's crown. The pacing over the entire piece is questionably ponderous, with a short opening salvo fading down to a dull trickle of events that may well spill blood but hardly raise pulses before the set-piece House of Blue Leaves sword battle. It all feels somehow perfunctory, not bad exactly, but a imitation of other movies that loses a little in the cloning process.
You are, in effect, poning up your fiver to see Now That's What I Call Cult Cinema 2003, a compilation of miscellaneous stuff compiled by D.J. Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately he's remixing along with the compilation and the originals were better left untouched. From the kung-fu to the swordplay to the wire-work, there's not a single thing in Kill Bill Volume One that you haven't seen before and haven't seen executed far better. There's only three moments that stand out in your memory after the morass of images has settled in. The House of The Blue Leaves sequence isn't the Holy Grail of Action it's been said to be but it's pretty impressive, the suitably ridiculous culmination of the blood soaked antics that have lead up to that moment. Uma Thurman scolding and spanking a junior Yakuza is a great way to cap off the moment. Sonny Chiba's role as a master sword maker has an energy and dignity that seems lacking in the rest of the film and some great lines with his subordinate. Production IG (makers of bits of The Animatrix, amongst others) provide an anime back-story for Liu's Oren-Ishii character that captures a fist fight better than any anime I can think of, off the top of my head.
That's not a huge amount of it's run-time that's particularly good. Even Tarantinos' usual ace in the hole, his dialogue fails to bring any sparkle being as tragically bland and ultimately unnecessary as in almost every other action movie. If you don't find the continual style changes bringing you out of the mood and can be swept along with Tarantino's patent enthusiasm for the material he's pinching you'll probably have a great time. If you are forced to take a step back and view this movie a little more dispassionately you'll see the cracks in the picture that you would perhaps miss had it grabbed you and held you close. Unfortunately the only real way to decide what camp you fall in is too see it yourself, but unless you're as much of a film geek as we are you might not even enjoy it as much as we did. And as the score says, that wasn't very much.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks. I should stick in what will doubtlessly become known as the Reloaded caveat, this film might in retrospect become really good once we've seen all of it. As it is pretty much only a half film it ought to consider itself lucky I didn't start marking it with a maximum of two and a half stars.
David Carradine (Bill)
Lucy Liu (O-Ren Ishi/Cottonmouth)
Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver/California Mountain Snake)
Vivica A. Fox (Vernita Green/Copperhead)
Michael Madsen (Budd/Sidewinder)
Sonny Chiba (Hattori Hanzo)
Chiaki Kuriyama (Go Go Yubari)
Julie Dreyfus (Sofie Fatale)
Gordon Liu (Johnny Mo)