Kill Bill Vol. 1

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003)


Quentin Tarantino has said that Kill Bill, his extravagant, omnivorous homage to exploitation cinema (and its TV spin-offs), simply could not run for three hours – hence its splitting into two 'volumes'. That would be contrary to the code of exploitation, which ordains that films should be fast, lean and mean.

Fair enough. But what Tarantino doesn't say is that the budget for Kill Bill would have paid for at least one hundred of the Italian Westerns, Asian action movies or Japanese samurai flicks to which he so deliriously pays tribute here.

Rather than seeing this as a contradiction which undermines Tarantino's intention, it would be better to take the discrepancy as a sign of what is best about Kill Bill. It is an impossible, paradoxical object: a blockbuster B movie, a wilfully incoherent epic that aims only for sensation. And, strangest of all, it works perfectly well for audiences who might never have seen the movies it borrows from.

'Volume' is indeed the right tag for it, in the sense that it groans and eventually bursts with its profusion of ideas, colours, sampled music, digressions and set pieces. Kill Bill is, just above the underrated Down With Love (2003), this year's most enjoyably excessive film.

To his credit, Tarantino has ventured into new territory. Gone are the endless talk-fests, the often dry and static shots, the puzzling time-schemes of the narrative – those hallmarks of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). And, although Tarantino is still wonderful with actors, his tendency to fetishise characters into bundles of kooky eccentricities has been streamlined into something much purer and more iconic.

Kill Bill is action all the way. Taking on board the idea that action offers a working definition of pure cinema – perhaps it's an absolute definition for him, although it shouldn't be for us – Tarantino unfussily divides his film into two kinds of events: the kills, and the time just before the kills.

The plot of the film could not be simpler. The Bride (Uma Thurman) wakes up after four years in a coma. Requiring hardly a moment to recover and train, she seeks revenge against the four members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVA) and their leader, Bill (an as-yet unseen David Carradine), who turned her wedding day into a bloody carnage. Film buffs will spot the debt to François Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1967) in this premise. At the end of Volume 1, it's two down, three to go.

Who was The Groom? What, exactly, compelled Bill to such ultra-violence? How did The Bride get along with the DiVAs – since she used to be part of their team? None of these questions get a moment's consideration in Kill Bill, and I don't expect we will get much further backstory in Volume 2, either.

Tarantino is after an effect of vivid, surreal immediacy, not psychological explanations. He wants that aura of no-nonsense savagery which he has enjoyed in many exploitation movies that set archetypal figures on their path to death and destruction.

Yet, for all its simplicity, this is also an extremely modern film. In its zaniness it approaches the recent Pistol Opera (2001) by one of Tarantino's all-time idols, the Japanese master Seijun Suzuki.

Although the through-line of the action is as clear as it can possibly be – hilariously summarised on a piece of paper where The Bride crosses off the name of each person she kills – Tarantino also breaks up the action with a profusion of introductory, numbered titles. He even presents one significant flashback as a long, stirring sequence of anime.

In an era when the likes of Hong Kong's John Woo are trying to become more classical and restrained within the Hollywood system, Tarantino is becoming more experimental. The happy result is evident from the first major scene of Kill Bill, where The Bride interrupts the suburban idyll of Vernita Green aka Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox).

This brutal encounter is rendered in a barrage of fast cuts, broad gestures and deafening sound-explosions. Tarantino offers us a single, gorgeous reminder of the homely milieu he portrayed in his previous Jackie Brown (1997), when the fight stops dead to show, through the front window, a school bus dropping off Copperhead's little daughter.

At the other end of the film, the long showdown between The Bride and the Crazy 88 in the House of Blue Leaves – a gauntlet that has to be run before reaching O'Ren-Ishii aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu) – has not even the slightest vestige of everyday life. This overwhelming climax is viewed primarily from two vantage points: at foot level (Tarantino loves the vulnerability of feet, and the tension created by the simple act of walking); and from overhead, the camera giving us a distant, architectural plan of events.

Meanwhile, the music – an assortment of tracks mostly taken from other soundtracks, plus some fiddled samples by The RZA (who previously scored Jarmusch's Ghost Dog) – drives the action into a splendid frenzy. Perhaps Tarantino could learn from Australian editor Jill Bilcock's recent advice – that working to music tends to draw out the cuts unnecessarily – because the most ecstatic parts of Kill Bill are those which proceed solely with a symphony of second-to-second noises.

Kill Bill is an incredibly violent film. There are decapitations, scalpings, severed limbs aplenty and huge, cascading streams of blood forever spattering The Bride. (The movie is a tribute to Thurman's stamina.) For a little extra provocation, Tarantino throws in (albeit discreetly) a touch of gruesome sexual perversion.

But none of this is disturbing or particularly confronting. In fact, from start to end, this brilliantly directed, ultra-violent spectacle is exhilarating fun. For once, Tarantino's fan-boy protest – which in the '90s seemed like a hollow evasion – rings true: it's all just comic book fantasy. This time, Tarantino has achieved such total artificiality that he doesn't even need to worry about social issues like race, class or gender.

The most surprising aspect of Kill Bill is that, for all its over-the-top humour, it never becomes a camp parody of exploitation cinema. The recurring sight of The Bride advancing on her prey, over and over, may be pretty meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things, but it is, all the same, weirdly uplifting.

Kill Bill – Vol. 2

MORE Tarantino: Inglourious Basterds, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood

© Adrian Martin October 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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