[box cover]

Kill Bill Volume 1

Miramax/Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Lui, Vivica A. Fox,
Sonny Chiba, Gordon Lui, Julie Dreyfuss,
and Chiaki Kuriyama

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino


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Review by Damon Houx                    


One of the defining elements of modern film culture is that if one has the means, one can find most any movie — whether it's been officially released or not. The problem is that instant gratification is a double-edged sword. Though the studios have slowed when it comes to releasing the DVDs for pictures big and small (be it Star Wars or Fixed Bayonettes), the World Wide Web simply has made the world smaller, and films that used to be found only by staying up late at night, or driving to a film festival or repertory house that's got a single-day showing of something you've been dying to see, or through a friend of a friend's worn-out copy of a late night-taping of Jean Renoir's Swamp Water, it's now easier to find the obscure and the out-of-print than ever before.

Even more so, video-release windows have shrunk to less than six months, and titles released outside of the States are made available that much quicker for region-free enthusiasts — with overnight delivery and DHL international shipping, even the earth's physical size isn't much of an obstacle. And for those unwilling to buy such a player (which can be had for less than $100, if one buys the right machine), there usually are numerous gray-market bootlegs that follow. Twenty years ago, artists like Takashi Miike or Chan-Wook Park might have gotten a movie released stateside, but if one is in the right circles, most of their films can be found through these various sources. Yet, this gratification becomes (as all instant gratification does) dulling; part of the pleasure of seeing a midnight showing of The Frozen Dead or California Split on your local station was knowing if you didn't catch it then, you might not see it ever again. Without that sense of exclusivity, it's just less exciting to not go on a journey to find stuff like it. Hard-to-find titles no longer are fetish items — no longer holy grails — if you can "Buy It Now" on eBay.

But there's something special about the audience who lived from October 10th of 2003 to April 16th of 2004. Those people could only see the first chunk of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series. For a little over six months they could only chew on half (actually, less than half: Volume One clocks in at 111 minutes while Volume Two runs 135) of Tarantino's ode to revenge films and all the other cinemas he loves. For them and them alone, the Kill Bill experience was not a cohesive whole, but two separate films. They had to wait to finish the journey, while everyone after that point can watch both back-to-back (with a release date of April 13th, 2004, the DVD of Kill Bill Volume 1 was timed to be available at home only three days before the series' conclusion). In a world where instant gratification is the rule, not the exception, there's something twisted and special about an event like this, something only someone like Quentin Tarantino might understand. And it's wholly different than the one-year breaks between Lord of the Rings films; this was a decision made because Tarantino wanted to indulge himself, his fans, and his story, and maybe torture those people who never had to make that wait that most all film geeks from the VHS-era suffered through.

As should be evident by now, Tarantino is the king (or crowned prince, if one wishes to include Martin Scorsese) of movie geeks. He's the kind of guy who stayed up until four in the morning to watch James Landis's The Sadist; he's the guy who helped Rolling Thunder give releases to films that may have never stood a chance any other way; he's an ex-video store employee who is just as comfortable as a director as being a human video-resource guide. And his payment to his fans for loving movies was giving them an uncut and uncompromised (or, at least, only slightly compromised) version of his four hour grind-house flick — of which (as the reviewer can attest, one week before Kill Bill Volume 2 arrives in theaters) is a perfectly divided set of films that works as two different movies.

But that's not the beginning of our story…

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In 1997, Quentin Tarantino followed up his 1994 zeitgeist art-house, indie-smash Pulp Fiction with Jackie Brown, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book. It was, to say the very least, a picture that tried not to be a Fiction redux, a picture that gave a maturity and wisdom to the Tarantino universe, and a picture that many were disappointed by (the years have kinder to the movie, though it had its fans at the time). Jackie Brown also had the bad fortune to be released near both Titanic and Miramax's own Good Will Hunting, which (as those who've read Peter Biskind's Weinstein-slagging Down and Dirty Pictures will attest) was another big turning point for the company that Harvey always says Tarantino built. Brown was profitable, but it didn't follow Fiction's footsteps (or Hunting's, for that matter) as a break-out hit.

So, folks would ask Q.T. — What next? What next?

Rumors swirled. A Vega Brothers movie starring John Travolta and Michael Madsen? Perhaps, or perhaps never (recently Tarantino has said the leads are too old to star in such a prequel). A war movie called Inglorious Bastards with folks like Bruce Willis and Adam Sandler name-dropped? No one knew for sure, although Tarantino supposedly has written numerous drafts and hasn't finished it. For four years, rumors circled Tarantino while he did little but the occasional acting spot, to which critics berated the star-director for not doing what he did best.

And then came Kill Bill.

Originally it was to star Uma Thurman and Warren Beatty; Beatty dropped out and David Carradine came in, but then production came to a halt because Thurman got knocked up. This was the beginning of production troubles — the film definitely went over-budget and over-schedule. Fans clamored and waited as release dates shuffled and the wild script became available online. A trailer was attached to Miramax's 2002 Christmas picture Gangs of New York announcing that in 2003 "Uma Thurman would kill Bill." Like a lot of trailers, it misinformed. Unwieldy, this ode to exploitation was running way too long for one film; no one knew exactly how long, but the decision was made to split the movie in half, with one episode released in October 2003 and the other February 2004 (later moved to April). No one knew what to make of such a decision — a three-plus-hour exploitation film sounded like Tarantino finally had cashed in his Fiction chips to make the sort of movie that often is referred to as a sophomore slump; an indulgent masturbatory wank-out that allows a talented director a chance to gloriously screw up.

Make no mistake, the Kill Bill series is totally self-indulgent; it's a fan film/love letter to the grind-house classics of spaghetti westerns, Giallo thrillers, and the dubbed chop-socky that Q. Tarantino loves. But Tarantino is having a blast riffing on all his favorite movies. And is self-indulgence a bad thing? Only if it isn't entertaining. Kill Bill Volume 1 is an amoral, over-the-top, blood-and-guts spectacle. But Tarantino still knows how to punch an audience's buttons, and he plays to his groundlings like a pro. He probably knew he had to make Jackie Brown first, just so he could show that he knows how to direct, period, before he made his "fun" film. But with Kill Bill, Tarantino stretches directing muscles one wouldn't suspect he had, all just to make a fun pastiche epic that plays as the greatest film of its type.

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Opening with a shocking black-and-white sequence that has a blood-stained and pregnant Uma Thurman telling an unseen assailant that it's his baby right before she gets shot in the head, Kill Bill Volume 1 is broken into five chapters that — like most Tarantino films — are told out of sequence (the first chapter is entitled "2.") We come to learn that the unnamed character, referred to only as "The Bride," (her real name is bleeped in the soundtrack) used to be a member of the "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad ("The DiVAS") with five other people: O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui), aka Cottonmouth; Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), aka Copperhead; Bill's brother Budd (Michael Madsen), aka Sidewinder; Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), aka California Mountain Snake; and Bill himself (David Carradine, who's kept off screen in this installment). It was these people who did this to her.

After dealing with Vernita Green — the #2 on her list — in a spectacular opening fight sequence, the story backtracks to what happened to make The Bride hunger for her rampage of revenge. At what looks to be her wedding, The Bride and her party were shot to hell by her old co-workers. Though she's left comatose, The Bride survives, and Bill figures she's owed the chance to wake up before they try to kill her again. When she does awake, she realizes that her baby is gone, and four years have passed, but she has only one thought: revenge. To get it, she treks to Japan to find the one member of the DiVAS she's confident she can track down: O-Ren Ishii, whose history is recounted in a stunning anime sequence (perhaps the most violent sequence ever shown in an R-rated feature). The Bride also intends to get a sword from master craftsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, hero of the grindhouse for such violent Fu as The Street Fighter), who has stopped making swords because of his relationship with Bill.

Having traced O-Ren's rise to the head of the Yakuza, the film (much like Volume 2) makes its last chapter ("Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves") the longest, in service of a spectacular fight sequence wherein The Bride faces off with O-Ren's numerous underlings before getting a chance at O-Ren herself. These threats are the "Crazy 88" killers, O-Ren's lawyer Sofie Fatale (Julie Dreyfuss), masked assassin Johnny Mo (Gordon Lui, of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin fame) and the insane schoolgirl-outfitted Go-Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama, best known for her role in cult favorite Battle Royale)

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As plots go, it's a pretty simple story of revenge in which The Bride undoubtedly is going to succeed (at least in Volume 1); but like most of Tarantino's films, and most great films in general, it's not the story but how it's told. The pleasures of the movie are found in the minutiae: Hattori Hanzo has an assistant he's constantly bickering with; the grace-note beats of The Bride closing Vernita's door after stopping their battle when Vernita's daughter gets home from school; and the steady perversion of all the tropes of movies like this when the picture slips between the purple prose of Samurai chestnuts (The Bride: "Just because I have no wish to murder you before the eyes of your daughter, does not mean parading her in front of me is going to inspire sympathy") and "classic" Tarantino-esque exchanges (moments later, Vernita complains that "I should'a been motherfuckin' 'Black Mamba'"). Tarantino also does what he can be counted to do: spotlighting new and old talents. Here, it's newer performers Chiaki Kuriyama and Julie Dreyfuss, while veterans Sonny Chiba and Michael Parks that have roles that certainly will lead to more work.

If one were inclined to dislike Volume 1, we could say that there's absolutely nothing of value below the surface. Which is true — the Volume 2 is the installment that complicates the story and provides The Bride (and Bill) with deeper motivations. But that doesn't change the fact that Tarantino knows how to fit cinema to his purpose, and he elicits the reactions he wants out of the audience. Yes, the movie is a celebration of getting off on cinematic violence; it has no pretensions to be anything else. Like many great pictures (such as Swing Time or The Adventures of Robin Hood), Kill Bill Volume One works because it's merely trying to please its viewers.

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Tarantino has said he wanted to make Kill Bill because it presented him with a test of his talent — he's never directed much action before. Action is one of the hardest things to master in cinema; great action does a good job at setting up the spatial relationships of the combatants, while also using editing to heighten the velocity of the sequence. Q.T. nails it by making the action sequences his own. He's helped immeasurably by working with Robert Richardson, who's best known for his work with Oliver Stone, as well as his overhead white-light shots (seen in pictures like Casino and Wag the Dog). The most accomplished D.P. Tarantino has worked with yet, the Kill Bill films are immaculately shot, and their work together gives these action sequences an organic-yet-kinetic energy, while the imagery (such as Go-Go's spinning ball, and the sudden conclusion of her fight with The Bride) become indelible. What Tarantino also understands is something he seems to have picked up from the series and silent films he's watched: It's not that The Bride survives her travails, it's the how. How The Bride takes on the 57 members of the Crazy 88, how she's going to defend herself from the evil orderly Buck (Michael Bowen) when her legs have atrophied. Letting characters use their intuition, and showing how they find solutions to their ordeals, always hooks an audience.

If Volume 1 has an homage, it's to The Shaw Brothers and Samurai cinema (the second is more of a western, both American and Italian). But like every Tarantino film, there are numerous nods to the filmmakers he loves. One of the biggest influences is obviously Brian De Palma, as Vernita's daughter Nikki (Ambrosia Kelly) is revealed in the exact same staging that De Palma often uses to reveal someone who's surprisingly there, while there's an extended tracking shot through the House of Blue Leaves that also comes across as De Palma-esque (and if Tarantino proves anything, it's that De Palma always has been more than just the Hitchcock-riffer he's often accused of). There are numerous other references, from Lady Snowblood to Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive, but that's part of the fun. The film wears its influences on its sleeve (in this case literally, with Thurman dressed as Bruce Lee was in Game of Death), but these influences are often used in what would appear to be discordant ways that blend into something totally new and foreign. For instance, the anime sequence is scored to an Ennio Morricone western theme and some Isaac Hayes blaxploitation thumps, while the final showdown between O-Ren and The Bride is scored to flamenco guitar lines with a funk riff. The sound and vision mélange works because Kill Bill is about Tarantino's ability to absorb all of these different influences and mix them together so that it turns into something both familiar and not, while also suggesting correlations between samurais and gunslingers.

Perhaps the most important way Kill Bill engages its audience is through the amazing sound-design work by sound editor Bob Beher and sound engineer John Bires (though one wants to say Tarantino may have hand a hand in it). From The Bride stepping on crunchy breakfast cereal to the old-school kung fu thwacks heard during each fight, the attention to sound detail makes the experience that much more involving. And speaking of old-school sounds, die-hard fans are the folks Tarantino wants to entertain — the people who "get it." The movie begins with the Shaw Brothers' Shawscope logo, followed quickly by an "Our Feature Presentation" screen familiar to many who've gone to drive-ins and grindhouses past. But it isn't just the still screen — it dips and crackles like it used to (from having been slapped in front of so many other movies), and when it comes to an end, there's the familiar sound of a bad splice, the zssspt we are familiar with. It's this attention to detail that makes Kill Bill a grindhouse masterpiece.

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Miramax presents Kill Bill Volume 1 in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio. A fine transfer, this title probably is best enjoyed at high volume.

Tarantino has mentioned a Kill Bill special edition box-set coming at some point (it's all but inevitable), so the extras on this release are light. There's The Making of Kill Bill (22:05), which is something of a puff piece, but Tarantino always is a great interview, and his tidbits here are worth the effort. The only other major extra is The "5,6,7,8s Perform 'I Walk like Jayne Mansfield' and 'I'm Blue'" (5:51), which is anamorphic footage of the ladies playing two songs on the House of Blue Leaves set. There's a Tarantino Trailer Gallery, including trailers for all the films he's directed, the teasers for both Volume 1 (which includes footage not contained in either film) and Volume 2, and the "bootleg" trailer — though not the official trailer, or the other bonus trailer that accompanies the CD of the soundtrack.

For those with a penchant for having everything, the Japanese Region 2 release is supposed to run a bit longer and has the blood-soaked black-and-white "House of Blue Leaves" sequence in its original color stock, as well as different supplements, while a Limited Edition deluxe box set includes the film along with a miniature samurai sword, booklet, T-shirt, and a "Murder Bride Version" Bearbrick (one of those Lego-like figures). It's currently selling for $200 U.S. — a figure that's sure to increase.

— Damon Houx



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