Kill Bill (Volume 1) (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Quentin Tarantino fans have been waiting six long years for the release of the director's follow-up to Jackie Brown. So what do they get for their patience? An incomplete movie, artlessly cleft in the middle. Cinema interruptus. A film whose editing and inelegant structure have been severely compromised by the avarice of the Miramax head honchos, who believe they can wring more money from viewers by splitting Kill Bill into two pieces and double-charging everyone.

There's a key difference between Kill Bill and the likes of The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources. All of those movies required more than one part to tell the entire story, but they were developed in such a way that each movie represents a chapter, sculpted within its constraints to follow a basic three-act structure. Each has a clearly defined, complete arc within the context of a larger, sprawling narrative. The average viewer left The Matrix Reloaded, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Jean de Florette satisfied (to varying degrees) and anticipating the next film. Not so with Kill Bill, which was constructed as a single motion picture before being sundered at the eleventh hour. The result is messy and frustrating - a movie that feels incomplete in every aspect. I felt like a con had been perpetrated upon me. As a whole, Kill Bill might be an entertaining product, but, after seeing Volume 1, I was insulted. What Miramax has done (in collusion with Tarantino, who seemingly supports their position) is a travesty. It's outrageous to expect people to buy two tickets, make two trips to theaters, and wait four months in between in order to see an entire movie.

Kill Bill is a basic revenge tale that Tarantino has dressed up by using gravity-defying martial arts and comically copious amounts of blood. The main character doesn't have a name (just as she doesn't have much of a personality - she's an icon), and is referred to solely as "The Bride" or by her code name, "Black Mamba." As played by Uma Thurman, she is grimness personified. That's understandable, though. On her wedding day, her husband-to-be was murdered, she was beaten up and shot in the head, and her unborn child was stolen from her womb. (We don't yet know why - presumably we'll find out in Volume 2.) The five responsible for this were Bill (David Carradine) and the four members of his "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad:" O-Ren Ishi a.k.a. Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green a.k.a. Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), Budd a.k.a. Side Winder (Michael Madsen), and Elle Driver a.k.a. California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah). Four years later, after awakening from a coma, The Bride has one thing on her mind: revenge. She starts out by going after Cottonmouth and Copperhead. (Side Winder, California Mountain Snake, and Bill are left for Volume 2.)

One aspect of Kill Bill that doesn't disappoint are the action sequences. Although no better than those in The Matrix Reloaded, they are fun to watch, as The Bride slices and dices her way through dozens of enemies, using hidden wires to do Crouching Tiger-like moves. Tarantino has designed Kill Bill as an homage to the Hong Kong movies he dearly loves, and it accomplishes that. There is so much blood that it's virtually impossible not to laugh as gallons of it spew like a fountain from a decapitated head. The level of gore is so over-the-top that only the most sensitive of viewers will be grossed-out. Tarantino is going for campy comedy in these cases rather than realism.

One could argue that the best thing about Pulp Fiction was the delicious dialogue, and that's something almost completely absent here. The number of quotable lines and memorable non-action sequences is small. Stylistically, the film is clearly Tarantino's - it's a colorful, high-energy production filled with little cultural in-jokes (including a reference to an "old Klingon proverb"). One entire flashback sequence is presented in anime, some scenes are in black-and-white, and there are plenty of "cool" moments (such as Lucy Liu and her posse approaching the camera in slow motion). The music is nearly all from the '70s, featuring both pop songs and film score snippets. Kill Bill is many things, but for the most part, it's not boring.

I say "for the most part" because Tarantino could have used the services of a less generous editor. Volume 1 could have been a lot tighter. There's a lot of padding to be found here, and it's probably the result of trying to stretch a single three-hour movie into two 105-minute features. I realize that Tarantino is in love with every minute of film he shot, but even the best directors have to give up some footage. Tarantino's unwillingness to do this gave Miramax ammunition to bisect the movie. Had every moment of Kill Bill been riveting, this might have been understandable, but we're left with half-a-movie that runs for too long.

As has become Tarantino's trademark, events (which are presented in a series of chapters) do not unfold chronologically. Movies are typically shot out of sequence; this one is shown out of sequence. While I can understand the placement of the flashback background, there are other instances when the non-linear progression has no purpose other than to be contrary to the norm. Why show revenge #2 before revenge #1? There doesn't seem to be a reason. Maybe it will all become clear in Volume 2, although I somehow doubt it.

As far as the performances go, there's not much to comment upon. Uma Thurman does a credible job as the Termanatrix-like killing machine. We admire her tenacity but never identify with the character. (This is a problem with a revenge flick, where we're supposed to root for the hero and despise the enemy. Neither is the case here, especially since we never see Bill.) Lucy Liu is one of Charlie's Angels converted to the Dark Side. Vivica A. Fox has almost no screen time. Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine are being held back for Volume 2. One could make a good argument that legendary Japanese star Sonny Chiba does the best acting job with his supporting role as a sword-maker.

Throughout Kill Bill, I got the sense that Tarantino thinks he is being more clever than he actually is. This is easily the worst of Tarantino's four features (the other three being Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown). At this point, it's difficult to tell whether the story as a whole is worth telling - that judgment will have to await the release of Volume 2. But, based on what's available for the time being, I can only recommend Kill Bill for die-hard Tarantino buffs and Hong Kong action junkies. Everyone else would do better to stay away and avoid the bitter disappointment of seeing how the greed of a distributor can degrade the movie-going experience.

(Note: Miramax claims that money plays no part in the decision to release Kill Bill in two parts. This is, in their words, a determination based solely upon a desire to respect Tarantino's "artistic vision." If that's the case, then Miramax should offer a free coupon to see Volume 2 with every ticket sold to Volume 1. I bet they won't be doing that. And expect to see this film generate three DVDs: Kill Bill Volume 1, Kill Bill Volume 2, and Kill Bill Special Edition, which will feature the re-spliced whole film.)

Kill Bill (Volume 1) (United States, 2003)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, David Carradine, Sonny Chiba
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Music: RZA
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1