Friday Film Focus: Kill Bill Volume 1

Kill Bill Volume 1 shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly in command of his technique that he’s able to let all of his obsessions hang out. Kung fu fighting, samurai flicks, spaghetti westerns and female on female bashing (preferably with swords) are stuffed into the 110 minutes of Volume 1. In Kill Bill, Tarantino brings delicious sin back to the movies and shows us what’s sacred about the profane. His story engine is revenge. His movie is chillingly funny, bloody as hell, wildly inventive, and heart-stoppingly beautiful.

In the opening scene, Bill kills all of the other members of a bridal party, but leaves The Bride (Uma Thurman) and her unborn child for dead. She falls into a coma, from which she awakes, sans child, four years later. She promptly writes down a “Death List” featuring Bill and the names of her former buds at DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) responsible for the wedding massacre.  The first two—Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), she crosses off in Volume 1. The other three—Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (David Carradine) —will have to wait for Volume 2.

Uma Thurman is a gorgeous tower of power as the Bride, and in the first 45 minutes of the film, viewers are treated to: the Bride killing Green with a knife in front of her four-year old daughter; the Bride discovering that during her coma, a hospital orderly rented out her body for necrophiliac rapists (she kills one by biting his face off, and then proceeds to crush his skull). Before she arrives in Tokyo to kill O-Ren, she stops off to obtain a sword from Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba). He has been retired for years and is done with killing. But she persuades him, and he manufactures a sword that does not inspire his modesty: “This is my finest sword. If in your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut.”

Later, the sword must face not only O-Ren and her entire team (the Crazy 88 fighters), but the infamous Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), O-Ren’s teenage bodyguard and perhaps a major in medieval studies, since her weapon of choice is a chain and mace.

How did O-Ren rise to the top of the Tokyo underworld? Tarantino tells her back story in an anime sequence of startling vividness. In a sneaky way, it allows him to deal with material that might, in live action, seem too real for his stylized universe. As a child, O-Ren witnessed the gory murder of her parents, in this case by sword. The Bride’s narration explains to the audience that “luckily” the murderer was a Mafia kingpin pedophile, enabling O-Ren at the age of 11 to get into his bed and slowly disembowel him. The scene works in animated long shot: in live action close-up, it would have given the movie an NC-17.

The Bride’s showdown with O-Ren and her thugs takes place at the House of Blue Leaves, a nightclub that turns into a battlefield. It is a fight scene for the ages, expertly choreographed by Tarantino and martial arts advisor Yuen Wo-Ping, who out does his Matrix magic. The Bride defeats the 88 superb fighters despite her weakened state and recently paralyzed legs because she is a better fighter than all the others put together.

You can sense Tarantino grinning a little as each fresh victim, filled with foolish bravado, steps forward to be slaughtered. The incredible fight scene is visually stunning, transforming mid way into black and white. After all 88 fighters are slain, the Bride moves on to Go Go. To see O-Ren’s God-slicer and Go Go’s mace clashing in a field of dead men is to understand how women have taken over for men in this film.

When the Bride cuts through O-Ren’s entire army to face her nemesis alone, there is a quiet elegance to the ritual — the scene is shot in the falling snow with a tenderness that belies all the previous gore. Liu brings fire and feeling to O-Ren, but Thurman is warrior goddess, up there with Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. She raises the bar on the role and the film by showing that the Bride’s battle is not without humanity or honor.

Kill Bill is not the kind of movie that will inspire discussion of acting, but what Thurman, Fox, and Liu accomplish here is arguably more difficult than playing the nuanced heroine of some Sundance darling. There must be physical grace, personality, strength and the ability to look serious while saying and doing ridiculous things.

Tarantino has set aside his skill at dialogue to prove he can do pure action–the film is an absolute challenge to him. Both cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke work miracles to set up each scene in a different style. The movie is all storytelling and no story after all. The motivations for the Bride have no psychological depth or resonance, but are plot markers.

Much like his second film, Pulp Fiction, the characters consist of their characteristics. Even when the film looks directionless, what’s incredible is how the director suffuses everything – costumes, performances, blade-flashing editing and sound design – with something compelling. There’s a real thrill-essence here; Kill Bill just leaves you feeling excited. From Uma Thurman’s feet and music from Nancy Sinatra to RZA, who else could pull this off but the incredible Quentin Tarantino?

Image Source: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema