After Jackie Brown was released and multiple critics had had the chance to realise that it wasn’t Pulp Fiction 2 the film managed to gain a high level of praise. It was Tarantino’s most mature and restrained film to date. Naturally he wasn’t gonna stay restrained all the time though. Cut forward 6 years and Kill Bill is due to enter cinemas towards the end of the space year 2003. The film is a massive 4 hours long and the decision was made to split it in two. A decision I think was actually made long before. To view both Kill Bill films separately is to view two cohesive films that are tonally very different but share much of the same language of cinema. While Vol.2 is more character focused and relaxed Vol.1 is an ice cream sundae based explosion of violence, movie quoting and cereal based gags. Click the link for my review.
A theme that has ran through many of Tarantino’s films over the years has been the theme of revenge, often played out in all it’s bloody glory by women to men. Women are often the ones fully in control in his films. Before Kill Bill Jackie Brown was the one taking control of her life and getting her own back on the men that wronged her. In Pulp Fiction Jules and Butch are both men at the mercy of their women, as are a few other characters in the film. The entirety of the two Kill Bill films are framed around the idea of a strong woman taking back her life. After having her wedding interrupted by former employer Bill (David Carradine) and his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DeVAS for short), the pregnant Bride (Uma Thurman) is left in a coma for four years. When she awakens from her slumber she finds herself minus a baby and plus a unquenchable thirst for revenge.
Naturally, this being a Tarantino film, we start at target number 2 on The Bride’s Death List Five. This early scene, where we see The Bride take on “Copperhead” Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox), sets us up perfectly for the tone and style of the following 110 minutes. The fight is brutal and bloody with a mixture of martial arts and good old fashioned dirty fighting. Before long the fight is punctuated by the arrival of Vernita’s daughter coming home from school and, as Tarantino loves to do, the mood quickly switches to a tense conversation piece layered with dry humour, wise cracks and references. By starting the film at the latest chronological point in the first part of the story leads you to start asking the sort of questions you’ll want to see answered. How did The Bride survive her assassination? What happened to the first target on her list? Where did she get that badass ride? This is the beauty of Tarantino’s work quite often. He teases and toys with the audience. He sets you up for one thing and delivers something else. He’s making sure that in the first 10 minutes of the film you have the premise in your mind, have been treated to a great sequence of action and tension and have now got your interest piqued for the remainder of the film.
Anyone who argues that Tarantino uses non-linear structure just for the hell of it needs to pay attention to this film because it not only pulls off a non-linear structure well but does so within the confines of a traditional 3 act structure. In case you’re unaware of the 3 act structure system I’ll explain. Most films follow this exact pattern of storytelling. A 10 minute sequence at the start to entice the audience in and hold their attention. Around the 25 to 30 minute mark a major event will happen that allows out hero to fully set about their journey. If the film is 2 hours long you’ll get about an hour of action, discovery and conflict. Around half an hour from the end a major event of discovery will take place that sends or hero towards the final confrontation. Next time you watch a film keep track of the running time and see what happens. Some films deviate, some are even daring enough to try 5 act structures, but most hit this formula dead on. How does a non-linear film with it’s story bouncing back and forth in time manage this? Allow me to explain.
I’ve gone over the first ten minutes of the film two paragraphs up, barring mentioning the film’s very first scene where we have a bloody black & white close-up of The Bride as she is taunted by the voice of Bill and, apparently, executed before she can say the words that may have saved her. Uma Thurman gives one of her single greatest performances in this scene. Fast forward to the 30 minute mark and The Bride has just woken from her coma, killed a hospital nurse that had been raping her whilst in said coma, and is sat in the back of her car attempting to wiggle her big toe. Other than being a chance for Tarantino to film Uma Thurman’s feet the toe wiggling serves as a metaphor for the films story getting truly moving. Before The Bride can run she has to be able to walk after all, and being in a coma for four years can make that tricky. We also get a nice anime sequence here detailing O-Ren’s origin. The following 40 minutes is The Bride getting prepared, finding out how to find O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), explaining to us what she will be up against and infiltrating O-Ren’s Yakuza club. At the 1 hour and 13 minute mark The Bride says “O-Ren Ishii!!! You and I have unfinished business!”, well she says that in Japanese but I can’t speak that lingo. Anyway, that is the exact moment the final act starts, as The Bride captures O-Ren’s associate Sofie (Julie Dreyfuss) and uses her to send a message. The film fits exactly into a three act structure and so it delivers to you the pacing you’ve become accustomed to in films, even if you didn’t realise it, whilst also telling the story at it’s own pace and order. That is no simple writing task. It’s also the reason I believe Tarantino never really had any intention of releasing these films as one complete movie. I’ve never seen The Whole Bloody Affair cut but I can’t imagine it working when each part’s structure is so clearly defined.
This first part of the Kill Bill saga is possibly the most densely packed with movie quoting and visual cues of any of Tarantino’s films. The film opens with The Shaw Brothers company ident. The DeVAS are all named after venomous snakes, there are five members, a reference to The Shaw Brother’s 5 Deadly Venoms. Tarantino even references Pulp Fiction twice. The Bride makes a square shape with her hand just as Mia did. She’s the deadliest member of the DeVAS and makes her first kill with a knife, Mia was to be a skilled knife user in her TV pilot Fox Force Five. The Bride acquires her sword from Hattori Hanzo, played by Sonny Chiba, a character he played many generations of in a Japanese TV series called Kage No Gundan. The Tokyo we see as The Bride arrives is pretty much the Tokyo of a Godzilla movie, all made of card with model cars. The line “If you Encounter God, He will be cut” comes from the film Samurai Reincarnation. When the film starts the line “Revenge is a dish best served cold” appears, which is an old Klingon proverb as we all know. Most films would fail to pull the sheer amount of film quoting off that we see here. When a reference is made here it is made in reverence of the original art though, when most people quote to fulfil a pop culture reference quota. The quoting feels honest but also fun and genuinely never feels cynical.
The action in Kill Bill is phenomenal. The final act contains a series of action sequences more varied and better performed, thanks in part to the excellent Zoe Bell, than the majority of big Hollywood blockbusters can manage over the course of an entire film. The fight with GoGo Yubari (The terrifyingly stunning Chiaki Kuriyama) is at once comic, violent and incredibly choreographed. Personally I think it’s the best example of how good an Editor Sally Menke was. The Bride fights an army of Yakuza in the form of O-Ren’s Crazy 88 gang. Without the aid of digital effects Tarantino managed to create a mass fight sequence that was more stunning, exciting and satisfying to watch than the cartoon Agent Smith fight in the second Matrix film. It features a beautiful silhouette fight against a blue backdrop that follows the black & white bloodbath of the sequence before. The final fight with O-Ren takes place in the logical place a fight in a nightclub would take place, in it’s indoors garden with actual falling snow and painted sky backdrop. Don’t question the physics of the location, just accept that it is the only place The Bride could get her first taste of vengeance. These three sequences absolutely baffle my mind in their technicality, artistry and overall gob-smacked-ness. It boggles my mind that sequences like these are actually possible without using digital effects and yet still come out looking incredible. I’ve never known a director to be so skilled at action and yet not be primarily known for it.
Kill Bill has a few flaws, it really only pays lip service to real emotion. The emotional moments shown are really just a tease for the more sedate and emotionally charged scenes of Vol.2. The film also risks being too vibrant and excessive, yet somehow manages to stay just shy of going too far for my tastes. I assume some would find the referencing and pace a little too much though. Overall Kill Bill Vol.1 is a work of art. It is Tarantino’s most accomplished piece of action lead storytelling and is totally justified in being at the top of many peoples favourite Tarantino films list. It’s not THE best though, on a overall film making level that is. If we were judging on cinematic achievement alone the two Kill Bills would be his best. But I’m judging his films on their merit as works of art, and the next film I review will be his most perfect, influential and artistically worthy film. That being, Pulp Fiction.