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Kill Bill: Volume 1

cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, and Sonny Chiba

writer and director: Quentin Tarantino

111 minutes (R) 2003 Miramax NTSC VHS retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
With only three films to his credit, director Quentin Tarantino catapulted to the top ranks of his profession for his edgy, intense cinematic variations on fringe genre themes in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. These projects' quality and intelligence, made their violent, challenging contents gain mainstream respectability. Now, after many years' hiatus, Tarantino returns to the fold with an ambitious new production, a magnum opus overwhelming what came before and confounding critics and audiences alike with its audaciousness and Grand Guignol violence.
   Tarantino, in his fourth and newest endeavour, pays homage to the innumerable Hong Kong and Japanese martial arts movies, Japanese anime, spaghetti westerns and low-budget, drive-in genre pictures he saw and adored during his life and that inspired his filmmaking life choices. Processing this mostly under-the-critical-radar, motley mass of material in his quirky, creative way, Tarantino has cooked up a cinema stew in which the various flavours blend into a riotous whole that displays its maker's talents to the fullest and provokes heated reactions pro and con while patrons flock to the theatres for a profoundly memorable, riveting entertainment experience.
   A total genre wallow, stuffed with geeky references, Kill Bill Volume 1 unabashedly revels in its sources which, besides those mentioned above, include the guilty pleasure of trashy paperback suspense novels which Tarantino indicates by the way he titled the film and structured its narrative by literally dividing it into captioned chapters. Tarantino's enthusiasm and fondness for his effort will be infectious to fans while the graphic gore on display in Kill Bill will be disturbing to many others. The visuals overall, reveal the director's distinct and ingenious approach which becomes evident immediately from the very opening showing an old Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong Studio) feature presentation logo.
   Set in Tarantino's film fantasy version of the contemporary world, the story focuses on the mysterious personage known only as 'The Bride' (played to intelligent perfection by willowy beauty Uma Thurman), who once belonged to the clandestine Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (aka: DiVas) under the leadership of a certain Bill (David Carradine), who mostly remains off-screen manipulating and influencing events. Code-named after a deadly snake, like her compatriots, the Bride (alias, Black Mamba), in punishment for departing from Bill's gang, gets traced to the place and time of her wedding in El Paso, Texas. There the protagonist's former colleagues slaughter the entire gathering, not sparing even the priest and the organist while Bill himself fires a bullet into the head of the very pregnant Bride, leaving her for dead.
   Four years later, in a hospital coma ward, the Bride awakens to find out that the orderly (Michael Bowen) has been selling her perfect body to perverted guys who like to have sex with unconscious partners. Cleverly, swiftly and ruthlessly dispatching her exploiter, the Bride appropriates his van, crudely dubbed 'the Pussy Wagon', and embarks on a relentless mission to exact revenge. Her goal involves killing all the DiVas: Amazon of African descent Vernita Green (Vivica Fox), code-named Copperhead; Japanese/Chinese, American-born O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), code-named Cottonmouth; good ol' cowboy Budd (Michael Madsen), code-named Sidewinder; statuesque blonde, one-eyed Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), code-named California Mountain Snake; and most importantly - Bill, who must pay!
   In Volume One, the Bride gets to eliminate Copperhead first in a gut-wrenching, tragicomic, knife fight scene in the target's suburban Pasadena, California home, and the deceased's moppet of a daughter witnesses this. Then the protagonist, in an extended flashback, travels to Okinawa to contact elderly sword-maker and the squad-leader's former instructor Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), to undergo further training and to receive one of the master's legendary katana blades in a delightful, Zen-like interlude.
   Continuing the flashback, the Bride proceeds to Tokyo to confront the recently promoted yakuza leader, the fierce O-Ren Ishii, whose backstory gets explained in a brilliant, cleverly inserted anime sequence created by the experts who produced the acclaimed Ghost In The Shell and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. In the Japanese capital city, at the exclusive House of Blue Leaves nightclub, headquarters of the sought-after underworld boss, the Bride engages with her samurai sword, an array of underlings and Kato mask-wearing henchmen and women. She also clashes with upper-level assistants including deadly whip-chain wielding; deceptively innocent-looking, schoolgirl uniform-clad, young bodyguard Go Go Yubari (rising star Chiaki Kuriyama); and second-in-command Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfuss) and martial arts master Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu Chia-hui). The climactic showdown between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii, with its smouldering intensity, contrasts well with the wild, baroquely tumultuous and spectacular brawl that just preceded it. Everything ends with a tantalising cliffhanger leaving much to be explained and revealed in Volume Two.
   Our enjoyment of Kill Bill is greatly enhanced by the presence of genre icons David Carradine, Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu - and by the superb action choreography by Yuen Wo-ping (Hong Kong veteran of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix trilogy fame) and Sonny Chiba doing double duty. More pleasure comes from watching the gorgeous Uma Thurman whose extensive prep-training proved very effective for she looked terrific executing her moves and holding her own against experienced opponents. All the movements in Kill Bill have the lovely, graceful intricacy of the best martial arts films, although the ballets of bellicosity get performed with such outrageous, over-the-top blood letting that the graphic gore becomes unreal, which is the point. These genre pictures represent a stylised, fantasy world of revenge plots and dance-like violence where characters can be vivid and believable (as they mostly are here), even while they enact vigilante justice and personal vendettas impossible in ordinary reality. Tarantino depicts this with dazzling fight scenes, exquisitely photographed by Bob Richardson with camera moves, angles and unusual perspectives that reveal the glories of the staging and the skills of the actors, all the principals doing excellent jobs and deserving praise. One regrets that Vivica Fox didn't have more screen time.
   Kill Bill also affirms its genre essence in the intentionally spare dialogue that works because it often recalls the odd translations of the dubbed and subtitled productions it evokes. The costumes are excellent too with Thurman's yellow with black stripes sweat-suit an exact copy of Bruce Lee's famous outfit he wore in his last opus Game Of Death - what a hoot and she looks wonderful! The film boasts fine set design for the Okinawa locale and especially for the remarkable House of Blue Leaves. The eclectic, atmospheric score full of referential samples perfectly suited the proceedings. Though the bloodiness of this picture will be off-putting overkill (literally) for many viewers, Tarantino's latest project is a triumph. Kill Bill represents a passionate tribute to a panoply of unpretentious genre productions that, when accepted on their own special terms, can be very easy to love for their sheer exhilarating excitement. Firmly in that category, Kill Bill brings these qualities to life and must not be missed by any aficionado.
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