Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA.  2003.

Reviewed by Martyn Bamber and Shari Last

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‘Oh yeah!’ yells Tarantino before an exchange of gunfire erupts, followed by various scenes of gore-laden mayhem.  Although this actually occurs in From Dusk till Dawn (1996), these words surely reflect Tarantino’s state of mind while directing his Kill Bill saga.  This eagerly awaited film follows the director’s self imposed hiatus after Jackie Brown (1997), another film featuring a female protagonist (Pam Grier) involved in an elaborate plot to outwit a crime boss (Samuel L. Jackson) who threatens her life.  Unlike the leisurely-paced Pam Grier vehicle, Kill Bill: Volume I features Uma Thurman as ‘The Bride’ (codename: Black Mamba), a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.  The heavily pregnant Bride is gunned down on her wedding day by the other members of the squad, and then shot in the head by the squad’s leader Bill (David Carradine) and left for dead.  The Bride falls into a coma, but miraculously emerges four years later, escapes from hospital and sets out on a quest for revenge, taking out the members of her squad one-by-one. 

This is a well-trodden movie scenario, even for audiences not familiar with any of the films on Tarantino’s homage list, but the director is clearly aware of his antecedents and has a blast working in the revenge movie genre.  Kill Bill: Volume I plays like a film fans dream movie, a work littered with references to numerous movies.  Japanese yakuza and samurai films, Italian horrors, Chinese martial arts movies, Italian spaghetti westerns, the list of influences is endless.  Tarantino has described Kill Bill as his ‘movie, movie’ and it’s an apt description.  Cinematic references spill out of every frame and take on many forms.  Brian De Palma-like camera shots, music cues by Bernard Herrmann and Isaac Hayes, and a costume that echoes Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow tracksuit from Game of Death (1978) are just some of the familiar things that make an appearance. 

To be honest, I found some of the references wearying at times.  It’s fun for a film fan to play ‘spot the film reference’ and it’s great to see a filmmaker who genuinely loves movies share that enthusiasm with his audience, but I wish Tarantino had played down the movie riffs just a little.  It’s one thing to put a line, costume, music cue or shot from a film you love into your own film, but these references are often more effective when they’re integrated into the story for a reason.  When an allusion to another movie is put in Kill Bill for it’s own sake, it’s fun to be able to spot it, but all it does is remind you that a certain thing that’s used in Kill Bill was from another movie you loved.  A film like Jackie Brown took elements from Pam Grier films like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), and used them in new and interesting ways. Then again, Kill Bill is a completely different film from Tarantino’s previous directorial work; it’s an unapologetically self-conscious celebration of the films that influenced the director, and why gripe when the result is so well executed. 

As with Tarantino’s previous films, the choice of music is superb and every role has been meticulously cast.  Thurman seems to have languished in many forgettable films in recent years, so it’s great to see her reunite with the director who made her Mia Wallace such a memorable creation in Pulp Fiction (1994).  This really is a close actor/director relationship and the results are impressive.  Not only is she believable in the numerous fight scenes, she also handles the shifts from comedy to drama convincingly.  Some of the cast, such as Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen and especially David Carradine, barely feature in Volume I, but we’re sure to see more of them in the follow up.  A host of veteran character actors and cult movie icons pop up throughout the film, including an appearance by Michael Parks (in a nice echo (reprisal?) of his sheriff role in From Dusk Till Dawn) and Sonny Chiba (who was name checked in 1993's Tarantino-scripted True Romance). 

The main focus of the Bride’s fury in Volume I is on two members of the squad, played by Vivica A. Fox and Lucy Liu.  Both make a strong impression in the film and Liu’s character even gets her own backstory illustrated in an anime flashback, which features graphic violence that’s arguably more shocking than most of the film’s live action bloodshed.  Some viewers may complain about the level of violence and gore, but the director has never made a secret of his interest in the ‘cinematic’ potential of violence in films.  Although much of the violence is over-the-top, we still feel the characters pain and suffering, much as we did in Tarantino’s previous films.  For me, the moment when the Bride wakes up from her coma and discovers that her child is gone is more gut wrenching than all the spurts of blood and severed limbs.

Interestingly, one film that sprang to mind while watching this was Point Blank (1967), which featured Lee Marvin relentlessly pursuing the people who have betrayed him.  Like Tarantino’s film, Point Blank has a pared down narrative and a ruthless protagonist seeking revenge after being left for dead by former colleagues.  Although Kill Bill and Point Blank don’t share any obvious stylistic similarities, both films present a revenge plot that could be interpreted as a wish fulfilment fantasy playing out in the dying protagonist’s head.  Steven Soderbergh used a similar scenario in The Limey (1999), as Terence Stamp sets out on a mission of revenge against the people responsible for his daughter’s death.  Whether Kill Bill: Volume II will be revealed as a dream and overturn the events we see in Volume I remains to be seen.  However, the final moments offer up an intriguing twist that will keep viewers in eager anticipation of Volume II, which arrives in early 2004. 

Martyn Bamber

Bill’s right. This really is Tarantino at his most masochistic. Kill Bill Vol. 1 shows that Tarantino just loves violence. He loves it so much he’s made a whole film about it. Let’s face it; Kill Bill is not about plot. It’s not about the inner anguish of a mother, deprived of her child by a treacherous villain. It’s not a film about the power of the white female. It’s about how much Tarantino loves films that love violence. Uma Thurman is 'bleep' aka The Bride aka Black Mamba. And she is out to kill – I’ll give you three guesses… – Bill. On the way, she has to kill the other members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) who were also responsible for her near-death.

That’s pretty much the whole film. But what makes it special is exactly how *bleep* goes about it. She is like Lara Croft; she can do just about anything. Thurman wields samurai swords, knives, rides motorbikes, does kung fu, can kill a man with her bare hands, can kill 88 crazy bodyguards in one sitting, anything. Tarantino has proved that he is the director version of Lara Croft. He can use any type of filmic technique: black and white, 16mm, ‘silhouette-vision’, anime, split screen, slow motion, maybe he can even kill a man with his bare hands, who knows? The thrill of Kill Bill is watching it all come together and marveling that so many random and far 
reaching ingredients can make a movie that’s so tasty.

But let’s return to Tarantino’s masochism. We can understand his love of pointless violence I suppose, but where does the masochism come in? The violence against himself? Well that’s easy. Kill Bill is a film that ensures the audience knows it’s a film. Tarantino’s there everywhere we look. While most directors try and make their film as realistic as possible, Tarantino is waving a big, bloody banner saying “look at me, I’m a film!” I mean, bleep carries a samurai sword on a plane. Definitely a film. By making a film about being a film, Tarantino is telling us that he didn’t actually make any of this up – he just put other people’s ideas together. His masochism is destroying his reputation by revealing his sources, but at the same time making him loads of money. No guesses for who has the last laugh.

Shari Last
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