Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not a pop-culture junkie and tributary filmmaker, and this, his insistently dubbed “fourth film”, drives that point home as strongly as any of his other movies. Whereas his last film, Jackie Brown, was something of an homage to blaxpolitation with foxy Pam Grier in the lead, Kill Bill Vol. 1is a veneration of the martial-arts flicks beloved by Mr. Tarantino – the film opens with a retro title informing us the film is in ShawScope, a nod to the Bros. Shaw – with a bit of spaghetti western, Japanese anime, and Hollywood musical tossed in.
The enceinte Uma Thurman, whose character’s real name is intentionally bleeped from the film giving her the airs of an Eastwoodian (wo)Man with No Name, is left for dead with the rest of her wedding party by her former assassin associates led by the titular Bill. (The scene seems a tribute to an early scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, an impression buttressed by the scene’s expansion in the subsequent Kill Bill Vol. 2.) Miraculously, Uma has survived a hell of a beating as well as a bullet to the head, and awakens months later from a coma, soon thereafter setting out for revenge on those who killed her unborn daughter. Thurman’s performance, especially the scene in which she awakens from her coma, tearfully clutching at her now depregnated stomach, establishes her firmly as one of her generation’s finest actors, although she doesn’t often get the parts to prove it. (The Producers?)
For a live-action American film, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is incredibly violent. But, while the opening shot – a long, static take of Thurman’s pre-bullet battered and quivering face – is repulsive in its frank verisimilitude, the rest of the film’s violence is as heavily stylized as a Road Runner cartoon. The first post-credits sequence, a badass suburban catfight between Uma and Vivica A. Fox, is filled with garishly saturated colors and cartoonish whoosh whomp sound effects. The martial-arts have been amusingly Americanized, as the weapons are kitchen knives and frying pans, coffee tables and cereal boxes. In this scene, or in the one in which O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) decapitates a business rival and blood gushes from the neck like water from Old Faithful, one is not so much horrified by the exaggerated violence as they are bemused.
The film’s most violent sequence is the climactic set piece – a nightclub blood-bath – that becomes so bloody as Uma battles over eight dozen masked Japanese swordsmen that the MPAA notoriously and ridiculously insisted the sequence be presented in black-and-white. (This marks, I’m pretty sure, the first time the color red has ever been deemed unsuitable for viewing by anyone under the age of seventeen without a guardian.) The scene’s tension is amassed as masterfully as it is in a Leone climax, culminating in a final showdown with O-Ren that looks like it was shot on the MGM backlots, perhaps a Japanified set from The Bandwagon?
Movie musicals and action films have a similar structure, as both include choreographed breaks in the straight drama. But while a well-done musical number or action sequence drives the narrative forward, in Kill Bill Vol. 1 the action sequences are the plot, and the few scattered scenes of dialogue merely serve to propel the violence forward.
Say what you will of Tarantino as a person – for example, that he’s an intolerable flamboy – but his filmmaker’s instincts are impeccable. The film’s frenetic polystylism is executed excitingly and engagingly, imbued with a sincere coolness without a drop of disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek irony. Tarantino has commendably fashioned a piece of stylized pastiche that remains utterly personal and original.