For those regarded as warriors, when engaged in combat the vanquishing of thine enemy can be the warrior’s only concern. Suppress all human emotion and compassion. Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.
A while back, there was a discussion in the Jury Room (DVD Verdict’s discussion board area, for those of you not in the know) around great directors. Quentin Tarantino was brought up, naturally. Some questioned his inclusion — can someone with only ten years of directing experience and only three films to his credit (that’s three prior to Kill Bill: Volume 1) be considered great?
If in his entire life Leonardo da Vinci painted only the “Mona Lisa,” he’d still be a great painter.
If in his entire career Quentin Tarantino directed only Kill Bill, he’d still be a great director.
Do you find me sadistic? You know, I bet I could fry an egg on your head right now. If I wanted to. You know, kiddo, I’d like to believe you’re aware enough, even now, to know that there’s nothing sadistic in my actions. Well, maybe towards those other jokers. But not you. No, kiddo. At this moment, this is me at my most masochistic.
The Bride was a top assassin, part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, headed by Bill. She got pregnant, wanted out. She found a good man, wanted to get married. Bill and the rest of the squad put an end to that. Beaten, shot, bloody, and with a final shot to the head from Bill, she was left for dead.
Except she didn’t die.
No, the attack left her in a coma. Bill refused to let her be killed in her sleep, saying they would deal with her if/when she woke up. Four years later, she wakes up. And revenge will be hers.
If killing The Bride was Bill at his most masochistic, Kill Bill is Quentin Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. If his other films have been subtle nods to his inspirations, this one is a rip-off of DePalma-esque proportions. If his other films have used pop culture as mileposts, this one uses its references as billboards. If he’s tweaked with linearity for effect before, here he does because he can. The media chronicled the miles of extra footage he shot, the millions he went over budget, and the months over schedule the shoot went. All to fill his narcissistic need to film the movie he wanted.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (unless I need to make a distinction, from here on out I’m dropping the “Volume 1”) is a confident, self-assured movie from a director who no longer has anything to prove and can make the movie he would want to see, because, after all, Kill Bill is the distillation of every movie, genre, and style of filmmaking that inspired Quentin Tarantino to make his own movies in the first place. You could look at his indulgences as narcissism, if you wish, but that would be to dismiss artistry and craft at the pinnacle of modern filmmaking. It’s an exercise in style and technique, perpetually threatening to teeter off the precipice of style trumping substance, yet at the end showing Tarantino’s rare ability to make style into substance.
Tarantino’s previous films — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown — have all shared, to a certain extent, a unique non-linear storytelling technique. (At least it was unique until every hack wannabe aped it to seem hip and edgy.) Reservoir Dogs started at the conclusion of its pivotal event: a botched jewelry store robbery after one of their own ratted them out. It hopped back and forth in continuity to show how the group of crack thieves formed, who was the police informant, and how the robbery went wrong. Pulp Fiction‘s tale of redemption amongst the irredeemable is told in a mostly circular fashion, starting at the end and coming back to finish the story. Jackie Brown was the most linear of the three, saving its continuity-mucking for the end, when its double-cross gets told, Rashomon-style, from the POV of its participants.
Kill Bill is the next evolutionary step in Tarantino’s storytelling idiom. It starts at the fateful day in the church when The Bride was left for dead. Very little information is revealed, save that a woman in a bridal veil is battered and bloody, with a man named Bill speaking sweetly before putting a bullet in her head…after hearing that the woman is bearing his baby. The credits establish that there’s a “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad,” but then we’re dumped into Chapter One entitled merely “2.” Uma Thurman, looking very much alive, attacks a woman who, despite her suburban domicile, is also very skilled in the deadly arts. A break in the action gives a chance for voice-over to give us a start at an explanation, and the conversation between the two women sheds more light. Chapter Two (“The Blood-Splattered Bride”) hops all the way back to the beginning at the aftermath of the attack, The Bride in the hospital, and leads us to the present day when she wakes from the coma. Chapter Three is another flashback, an almost gratuitous diversion that tells the origin of O-Ren Ishii, one of the Vipers, who becomes the first one on The Bride’s death list. But first things first. Chapter Four (“The Man From Okinawa”) is a gauzy, meditative detour, the first step on The Bride’s revenge trip as she beseeches a famous swordmaker for the instrument of her destruction. Chapter Five (“Showdown at House of Blue Leaves”) takes another diversion back in the history of O-Ren Ishii, but later picks back up in the present for the latter half of the film, the frenetic and titular showdown.
This may be the first volume in a two-volume orgy of bloody revenge, but it’s a self-contained story carefully and methodically told. Tarantino precisely dishes out the details, building one upon the other so that, by the vicious climax, we know the depths to which The Bride was wronged and why, so much more so than the other members of the Vipers, O-Ren Ishii is a woman to be respected and feared — and why half the movie can (and should!) be devoted to her demise.
Many of the film’s detractors have based their detractions on the film’s lack of plot, but my god, do these people pay attention? Tarantino’s films have all been built upon nuances of character, seemingly inconsequential whims of fate, and scripts full of stylized dialogue that accomplished little more than sounding cool. Where was the plot in Pulp Fiction? What was it about? Even if you put it together in linear order, it tells many smaller stories that add up to…what? It defies the tried-and-true storytelling techniques that go all the way back to Aristotle. There’s no protagonist or antagonist. There’s no tree to get the hero up, complications to getting him down, but gets him down nonetheless by the end. Tarantino transcended all that, as he does again in Kill Bill. It’s less about following along, more about drinking it in and putting it together as a whole at the end.
Tarantino’s films have all been his take on his inspirations — Hong Kong crime films for Reservoir Dogs, French New Wave for Pulp Fiction, 1970s blaxploitation for Jackie Brown — but no film has matched the highs of film geek fandom that he reaches in Kill Bill. He gleefully and shamelessly name-checks (in a manner of speaking) Hong Kong chop-socky, Japanese samurai flicks, and spaghetti westerns. He borrows Carrie-esque split screen techniques, not to mention musical cues from a wildly divergent and decidedly obscure group of films. He even manages not-so-subtle references and ties to his other films. What distinguishes him from other filmmakers who borrow from the work of others is that he doesn’t plagiarize; he paraphrases and carefully footnotes his work so that he not only acknowledges his influences, he makes them his own. His films are emulative, not imitative or derivative.
Tarantino’s films demand much of their casts. The actors must recite stylized dialogue in mannered deliveries, and emote nonverbally in ways that few other directors demand. As she was with Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman is up to the task of The Bride. She performs the choreographed martial arts so believably that you’d be convinced that she’s an old pro. She makes you feel the pain of losing her unborn daughter and the cold rage toward her tormentors. Lucy Liu is absolutely incredible as O-Ren Ishii. Her ruthlessness is unlike anything you’ve seen in her pop culture pap (Charlie’s Angels, Ally McBeal) or even her good movies (Payback). Aside from one or two bellowed lines, it’s an intensely quiet performance. Vivica A. Fox belies her lightweight résumé (Booty Call? Boat Trip?) in her small role as Vernita Green. Watch her eyes as she silently begs The Bride not to kill her in front of her daughter as the bus pulls up. Now that’s acting. Daryl Hannah reminds you in her brief scenes that, once upon a time, she did great work in movies like Blade Runner and Wall Street. I doubt this will do for her career what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta, but it’s great to see her doing something good again. But, of all the fine performances, the actor who really shines is Sonny Chiba. I will admit this is his only film that I’ve seen; my knowledge of him begins and ends with Tarantino referring to him in his True Romance screenplay. As Hattori Hanzo, he is the soul of Kill Bill. He bookends the film with meditations on the nature of revenge, delivered — as they should be — in Japanese with subtitles. The first, delivered between chapters One and Two (and excerpted in The Charge above), instructs that the warrior must put aside emotion and compassion. Vanquishing the enemy can be the only concern. The second ends the film, warning that revenge is like a forest and that the warrior must not become distracted. At the heart of the film is the grand ceremony where Hanzo delivers to The Bride her sword. This quiet scene is perhaps the best in the film, enforcing that the warrior doesn’t kill for joy, but for what they believe. Chiba’s delivery throughout his short passage in the film is, again, quiet and contemplative — it’s only after several viewings of the film that you realize just how quiet it can be.
And do I need to mention the action?
Didn’t think so.
Miramax must be taking to heart QT’s comments that he wants to do an über-edition of both volumes later, because their DVD of Kill Bill: Volume 1 is adequate yet uninspired, a prototypical first dip when a double dip is planned. Video is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Tarantino’s movies often have a grainy, old-school ’70s look to them, and Kill Bill is no exception. This look could be mistaken for poor DVD mastering, but it’s how the movie is supposed to look. The color palette, much brighter and more garish than QT’s average film (gotta love the day-glo blood!), is preserved perfectly, and the black-and-white sequences are correctly oversaturated. However, the rampant edge enhancement is unforgivable.
Audio is available in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, and DD5.1 in French. (Buena Vista saves some bits by making the French track 384Kbps instead of the standard and preferable 448Kbps.) DTS is definitely the way to go. Both tracks feature immersive mixes, but the DTS has better dynamic range and deeper bass to all channels; test the two side by side during the “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” sequence in chapter 13 (DVD chapter, that is, not movie chapter) as O-Ren and her entourage enter the House of Blue Leaves. The difference is notable.
Extras are sparse. A 22-minute “The Making of Kill Bill” is your typically fluffy making-of featurette with talking heads and on-set footage. No real revelations here. Japanese band “5, 6, 7, 8’s” offer videos for the two songs they perform in the film. At least the trailer gallery is cool — trailers for every Tarantino film, including teasers for both volumes of Kill Bill and a “bootleg” trailer for Volume 1 that really offers footage from both installments and is pretty damn cool.
I know, I know, QT is planning on another DVD down the road, but it sure would’ve been nice to have the Japanese cut of Volume 1 now. They got the House of Blue Leaves massacre in color, not MPAA-friendly black and white. Not fair!
In case you were wondering, as of this writing I have not seen Kill Bill: Volume 2. I wanted to keep my commentary centered on this film and avoid spoilers for those who have not seen it. You can bet that as soon as I submit this review, I’m haulin’ ass to the nearest multiplex.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is classic Quentin Tarantino taken to the next level. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This groundless case is dismissed.