Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Murder Me, Bill

Banzai! Girls with swords dominate Quentin Tarantino’s demented fantasy.


Quentin Tarantino’s first movie in six years is one big film that will be released in two parts (the second is slated for February). The first installment, Kill Bill Vol. 1, reminds us why we first loved the guy. After the glowing maturity of his 1997 drama Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s gone back to re-creating the unstable mix of visual inventiveness, heavily aestheticized violence, and black humor that made his Pulp Fiction such a cultural landmark. His trademark style is no less cool in 2003 than it was in 1994, though that’s not why you should see this film. You should see it because it’s crazy as a loon, the way only an audacious and incredibly talented movie geek such as Tarantino could make it.

Like Pulp Fiction, this movie is divided into chapters and told out of sequence. It’s about an assassin (Uma Thurman) once called Black Mamba but now known as The Bride. One of five members of an elite death squad led by a guy named Bill (David Carradine), she became pregnant and decided to leave the group to get married. On her wedding day, her colleagues killed her husband and massacred the wedding party, with Bill himself putting a bullet in her head. She emerges from a coma four years later and swears revenge, setting her sights on Vernita “Copperhead” Green (Vivica A. Fox) and O-Ren “Cottonmouth” Ishii (Lucy Liu) in Vol. 1.

Though it borrows elements from spaghetti westerns and Hong Kong action cinema, it’s closest in spirit to Seijun Suzuki’s gleefully unhinged 1960s yakuza gangster pictures, such as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. As in Suzuki’s films, the outlandishly named killers abide by obscure bushido-like codes of honor, but the movie undercuts their total seriousness of purpose by playing its violence for wacky comedy — when people’s heads or limbs are chopped off, they spurt fountains of blood like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The movie runs amok with outrageous gags, from the epigraph (“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” attributed erroneously to an old Klingon proverb) to the Japanese restaurateur dressed like Charlie Brown to the tiny red cross on the eye patch worn by Elle “California Mountain Snake” Driver (Daryl Hannah) as she impersonates a nurse, sashaying down a hospital corridor on her way to a murder while whistling a jaunty little tune over ominously swirling orchestral music (Bernard Herrmann’s from Twisted Nerve). This last moment is one of many when the movie’s insanity reaches orgasmic proportions.

Tarantino pours it on by having most of the violence done with swords rather than guns. The martial arts sequences are choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, whose work here is on a par with his groundbreaking stuff for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yuen’s versatility is phenomenal; he fits equally well with the Wachowskis’ technogeek fantasy, Ang Lee’s classical tone poem, and Tarantino’s fever dream. The knife fight with Vernita makes clever use of the suburban kitchen setting, and the scene in which The Bride takes down O-Ren’s entire bodyguard corps (a Reservoir Dogs-clad bunch called The Crazy 88) will have audiences buzzing, but the real highlight is her crackling square-off with a giggling schoolgirl named Go Go Yubari (the dead-eyed Chiaki Kuriyama), who twirls a spiked steel ball on the end of a chain. Only Tarantino would see the swanlike Thurman as a finely tuned killing machine. His unlikely casting is spot-on; the action scenes find her fierce yet oddly light on her feet for such a tall performer, and Thurman’s understated comic instincts dovetail nicely with the movie’s general weirdness.

Tarantino’s humor is most memorable when it turns queasy, and you laugh to keep from screaming. The slow-rolling, nightmarish sequence when The Bride comes to in her hospital room is as skin-crawling as Pulp Fiction’s sodomization scene, as she taps her head and hears a metallic ring, then wails when she realizes that her baby is dead, and then learns firsthand that a redneck orderly has been raping her regularly during her coma and letting his friends do the same. The danger and emotional weight in the story counterbalance the eye-popping visuals, and it seems like there’ll be more of the former in Vol. 2. The attempts at pathos don’t always work — the lengthy anime sequence giving O-Ren’s backstory is the most serious misstep — but the ones that do work keep you from getting too comfortable.

The RZA’s esoteric and frequently kitschy score (using Sonny Bono, Nancy Sinatra, and Zamfir, among others) matches the film’s elusive mood well, and Tarantino’s production crew (cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designers Yohei Taneda and David Wasco, and costume designers Kumiko Ogawa and Catherine Marie Thomas) makes this his most beautiful work, one with almost every shot set up to wow you. The sensual pleasures on display in this movie, combined with the filmmaker’s all-out battiness, form a vivid hyperreality that puts the Charlie’s Angels films and even The Matrix franchise in the shade. It’s a rare film that works as both a straightforward action thriller and a gorgeous, demented parody of one, but Kill Bill Vol. 1 does the trick. I wonder what Seijun Suzuki thinks of this.

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