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Bill to Pay


Kill Bill: Volume 1

Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.5



Posted: October 13, 2003

By Laurence Station

Kill Bill is director Quentin Tarantino's homage to the grindhouse flicks of the early '70s: low-budget martial arts features that played in cheap theaters. Borrowing from the plots of several hop 'n' chop films (specifically, at least in Volume One, Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Chang Cheh's One-Armed Swordsman), Kill Bill follows the classic revenge quest of a betrayed woman (Uma Thurman) who sets about doing exactly what the title says -- and presumably succeeds in her task in the second and final volume, debuting in Spring 2004.

Make no mistake, however: Kill Bill is really just one film, a three-hour-plus martial-arts-spaghetti-western-grindhouse extravaganza with a very large budget and some of the finest fight choreographers in the world plying their trade. Miramax, the distributor, clearly felt a three-hour action movie would be too much for most audiences, and suggested splitting the film in half -- which Tarantino claims was his secret aim all along. (This being an action movie, the whole idea of stopping in the middle seems odd, but at least Tarantino does so with a decent semi-cliffhanger.) Of course, we won't know whether this decision was genius or folly until after the second part is released, and the work is judged as a whole. It'll be interesting to see how all the loose ends come together in the second half.

But for now, we've only got the first half, and it evinces an intriguing dynamic. On one hand, it's a simple revenge tale, paying tribute along the way to everyone from the Shaw Brothers to Bruce Lee's role as Cato on the old Green Hornet television show. But the flipside reveals a sixty-million-dollar-plus, epic-length tale with quite a lot of attention to detail. Not only is the film a technically impressive feat, the plot so far suggests a certain cleverness on a higher level than a simple, stock genre flick. Case in point (minor spoiler alert): In the early going, The Bride announces to Bill, just before he shoots her in the head and leaves her for dead, that he is the father of her unborn child. At the conclusion of Volume One, Bill closes the circle by announcing that the child, a little girl, is still alive.

Intriguing as that dichotomy (violent, revenge-flick surface versus the promise of something deeper in Volume Two) is, however, Volume One's utter lack of empathy severely detracts from any sense of anticipation for the second half. There's simply no reason to care about any of these characters. Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) is amusing in a cartoonishly over-the-top kind of way, but these are not likable people. It's hard even to care about the Bride, who apparently gets attacked because she wanted to leave the fold. (So why does the assassin Copperhead, a.k.a. Vernita Green -- played by Vivica A. Fox -- get to leave the squad and become a settled suburban mom? But we digress.) The only scene with any warmth comes when the Bride visits legendary samurai swordsmith Hattori Honzo (a wonderful, too-little-seen Sonny Chiba).

True, such nitpicking seems out of place for a mere action flick. But Kill Bill is obviously intended to be much more than that. Clearly, Tarantino has loftier artistic ambitions, from specific looks and moods for each chapter of the film to Chiba's very serious Zen observations on the nature and transience of life. Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's most famous work, is, on one level, just a "crime flick," but it has real heart, from the sadness of Thurman's drug-addicted mobster wife to John Travolta's jaded, drug-addicted hit man, to Amanda Plummer's and Tim Roth's bungling criminal couple. Kill Bill makes one wonder just what Tarantino's Pulp co-writer, Roger Avary, would have brought to the table. Was he the heart and soul to Taratino's technically precise and clever mind?

Whatever the reason, Kill Bill is all style and no substance. Its strengths are obvious: From a purely stylistic and technical standpoint, the film is practically flawless. The action sequences are amazing feats of staging: The climactic House of Blue Leaves showdown between The Bride and O-Ren (Lucy Liu) Ishii's Crazy 88s is a masterpiece of balletic violence, and the aforementioned look and feel for the various chapters (from anime to classic black-and-white) is truly inspired. And for those with weak constitutions, don't worry, the violence is wildly over the top and the spurting of blood so ridiculously exaggerated to the point that it's easy to divorce oneself from the laws of the Tarantino-verse and the considerably more tame cosmos we live in.

The film's weaknesses, unfortunately, are just as obvious. For one, it remains to be seen whether the action-heavy first half will give way to actual characterization, will provide any possible reason to care about the inevitable outcome. For another, while on the surface Kill Bill appears to be an empowering feminist action flick, closer inspection proves otherwise. Who controls these women? Bill. Who controls Bill? Tarantino. There's something perverse about the disembodied voice of Bill dictating the actions of Viper assassin California Mountain Snake, a.k.a. Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), when she's at the hospital to finish off the comatose Bride. Not to mention Bill's hands massaging the mutilated Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfuss) at the end. Bill, like Tarantino, is an unseen puppet master operating behind the scenes, treating these women like extremely limber action figures, posing them to his will -- about as far from empowering as a film can get. Even the seemingly independent, self-sufficient Bride's raison d'Ítre is motivated by the actions of a man, and let us not forget: For the four years in which she lay in a coma, it's revealed that she's repeatedly raped. Hell truly hath no fury like a male director's deviant personification of a woman scorned.

The halfway analysis: Kill Bill is a very slickly produced, artistically ambitious work by a director paying respect to the gory action films of his youth. Therein, however lurks a larger concern: Are we just watching the ultimate fanboy vanity project? If this is the dream movie Tarantino's long wanted to make, the homage film to end all homage films, where, then, does genuine artistic intention begin and an obligation to his audience end? If Tarantino's audience is just Harry Knowles and the hardcore Ain't It Cool News-crowd, fine. But Kill Bill isn't being sold as some modest, geek-insider-friendly flick. It's a big-business production, backed by the considerable muscle of Miramax and playing in multiplexes across the country. One could be forgiven for thinking that Tarantino cashed in whatever Hollywood clout chips he had left in order to make his fantasy project. It'll be interesting to see whether the final product amounts to something more, and, depending on how well it fares critically and at the box office, where he goes from here.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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