Kill Bill – Volume 1

It’s been a long wait for the new Quentin Tarantino film – and it’s a long Tarantino film we’ve been waiting for. Long enough, in fact, that Miramax made the decision to chop Kill Bill in half and release it in two parts. The big question: Is Volume 1 compelling enough to bring audiences back for Volume 2 in February 2004?

That will depend in large part on the public’s appetite for a movie so over-the-top with violence it makes Reservoir Dogs look like a Merchant-Ivory production.The first installment of Tarantino’s tribute to grindhouse cinema is bursting at the seams with knife battles, swordfights, shootouts and hand-to-hand combat. Decapitations are a routine occurrence; the resulting geysers of blood more dependable than Ol’ Faithful.

The catalyst behind most of this bloodshed is The Bride (Uma Thurman), who was left for dead on her wedding day when an elite team of assassins known as DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) attacked the church and laid waste to the wedding party. The Bride, herself a former member of the squadron, was dealt a supposed killing blow by her ex-boss Bill (David Carradine, barely glimpsed in Volume 1), leader of DiVAS.

Unfortunately for Bill and company, The Bride survived, and after spending four years in a coma has now awakened to seek her revenge.That’s the plot–she makes a list of those who wronged her and sets out after each of them, crossing a name off each time she succeeds in eliminating a foe. This being a Tarantino film, however, events don’t unfold in such a straightforward manner.The screwy chronology and off-kilter tangents the director has favored since his earliest work are present and accounted for in Kill Bill.

This makes for a deliriously entertaining movie in the early going and an increasingly frustrating one as the end credits near.Tarantino is like a bull in a video shop, knocking over shelves and letting the genres fall where they may.For a while his film geek energy keeps the picture wired; when he stages a samurai swordfight like a spaghetti western shootout and scores it with Superfly-style funk, the director’s pure movie love is infectious.

But we already knew Tarantino was a pop culture cuisinart – so are a hundred other filmmakers who’ve surfaced over the past 15 years. Though it’s been six years since his last film, it seemed that the one-time enfant terrible had progressed beyond I Love the ’70s games of “spot the reference.” It wasn’t blaxploitation tropes or con-game twists that made Jackie Brown so special, but rather its lived-in feel for the small-time criminal milieu and its preference for relaxing and hanging out with the characters rather than grinding the gears of plot mechanics.

Kill Bill comes up short in the area of character, in large part because the trademark Tarantino dialogue is all but missing from the film.Gone are the profane soliloquies, circuitous conversations and absurdist riffs that sealed Pulp Fiction’s place in movie history.Here much of the dialogue is in Japanese, and even the English dialogue sounds like it’s been badly translated from an old chop socky flick.This is no doubt intentional and meant to be semi-parodic, but it’s a perverse decision nonetheless.Uma Thurman’s fierce commitment to the role of The Bride burns through every frame, but whenever the action stops, she’s stuck with some of the most awkward lines of her career (and that includes Batman and Robin).

Is Kill Bill simply meant to be a shallow, gore-drenched revenge picture – a “duck press” of 70’s action genres, as the press notes describe it – or does Tarantino have something more substantial in mind? It’s difficult to say based on the evidence at hand – which is, to be fair, only half a movie.The alternately jokey and solemn tone of Volume 1 may well be resolved in Volume 2, but for now there’s no way of knowing whether the occasional moody song on the soundtrack (Nancy Sinatra’s kitschy/melancholy “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down”) or poignant battle setting (a Japanese garden during a light snowfall) will add up to anything more than emotional window dressing.

It’s the split-in-two gimmick that ultimately makes Kill Bill: Volume 1 a less than satisfying night at the movies.The Lord of the Rings trilogy works because each installment is designed to culminate in a dramatically appropriate act break.Since the decision to split Kill Bill was made late in the post-production process, the ending of Volume 1 is jarring and feels almost arbitrary.(There’s a brief coda teasing Volume 2, but it doesn’t exactly get the pulse racing.) As marketing ploys go, it’s the equivalent of the self-important double album a recording artist releases when he’s been resting on his laurels a bit too long and needs to juice up his comeback.Almost invariably, those albums could be judiciously trimmed to fit on one CD, and the same is true of Kill Bill, which even at its full length wouldn’t run much longer than either of Tarantino’s two previous films.The final verdict on Kill Bill can’t be delivered until Volume 2 arrives, but Miramax and Tarantino should be on notice: they may have already killed our goodwill.

Scott Von Doviak

Kill Bill-Teaser