Dubbing Kill Bill: Volume One an homage would be to hobble it much as its heroine would a bad guy with a swift kick to the ankle.
Yes, it’s a patchwork of martial arts, fringe-film genres and melodramatic exploitation. But one distinct stitch holds together all the blood geysers, kitschy-bright color schemes and snappy dialogue — its opening sequence.
No witty banter about waitress tipping, talk about the ease of robbing a restaurant over a bank or sight of a super-cool Pam Grier walking across an airport concourse. Tarantino has never opened a movie as starkly and realistically as he has here.
Blood, sweat, snot and tears stream down Uma Thurman’s beaten face shown in black and white. A man with a handkerchief gingerly tries to wipe it all away. His actions seem helpful. His words definitely aren’t. “Do you find me sadistic?” he asks, as Thurman’s hyperventilation intensifies.
Concluding with a deafening gunshot and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, the scene resonates throughout. We never learn the real name of Thurman’s character, but her primal need for calculated revenge is thrown directly in our face so that we never, ever forget.
Of course, it’s dressed up in a blistering, bubblegum package. The first installment of Kill Bill (the second to be released in February 2004) is visually inventive, strangely beautiful and poetic, in a bare bones, samurai warrior way. Sure, there are so many inside-baseball references back to other films that even those films’ directors might miss them. But Kill Bill is a movie that, while dealing with death, is joyfully alive with surprises.
About the only thing that lumps Kill Bill in with Tarantino’s previous films is its chronologically mind-bending narrative. Arranged into non-linear chapters, it’s the story of Black Mamba, a.k.a. the Bride (Thurman), an elite assassin gunned down by her four co-workers (all named after snakes) and their boss, Bill (David Carradine).
Specifics are spotty, but it looks like the Bride was trying to marry and child-bear her way out of the killing business. Her failed attempt leaves both her unborn child and groom-to-be dead, but not her. In a coma for several years, the Bride finally awakens, wills her body back from atrophy and embarks on a globetrotting mission to avenge herself.
Bill lurks on the edges of the frame as a disembodied voice (think Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw stroking a samurai sword instead of his cat) and won’t be dealt with until the second half. In this volume, The Bride tracks down Copperhead, a.k.a. Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and Cottonmouth, a.k.a. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the latter of which is now the leader of the Japanese Yakuza.
What Thurman might lack in an imposing figure, she makes up for with imposing determination. She stalks the film with fury and frenzy. Fittingly, she has the same stoicism of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, endowing every action (particularly making her big toe wiggle) with her conviction. Even in her more coy moments, we’re wondering what vengeful act she’ll take next.
The movie is just as huge, employing myriad styles to burst through with its potent revenge-begets-revenge plot. An anime sequence showing O-Ren’s childhood is astounding. The Bride’s grapple with Vernita is filled with sickening crunches and a streak of humor. And the original score by Wu-Tang Clan member the RZA is an insane mix of spaghetti Western whistles, fat hip-hop beats and kung-fu gongs.
Tarantino also has endless fun with the conventions of martial-arts films, from their straightforward dialogue (“It is mercy, compassion and forgiveness I lack — not rationality.”) to intentionally misplacing punctuation marks in his subtitles.
Thanks to the help of fight choreographer extraordinaire Yuen Wo Ping (the Matrix films), Kill Bill has the same kinetic, furious streak of those films, too. Imagine a shotgun blast destroying about a dozen bowling balls — that’s what each hit sounds like. And Tarantino thankfully doesn’t introduce the concept of an 88-man army only to not have Thurman fight them.
Entitled “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” this chapter would already be amazing even without that particular fight. Swooping his camera through a la Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson gets the graphic, bloody shots, but turns them into the prettiest violent ballets this side of John Woo.
Kill Bill definitely is for Tarantino fans, certainly isn’t for everyone and likely will be appreciated by those on the fence about the filmmaker who appreciate adventurous cinema. Its savory, cliffhanging plot tease alone would be enough to draw people in for Volume Two. With Volume One, people will come in for the violence but stay for the amazing originality and emotion.