Like a dick-swinging flasher, Quentin Tarantino lets all his obsessions hang out in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Some people may want to kill him for it, and not just because they’ll have to pay again to see Vol. 2, set for release on February 20th. Kill Bill is an act of indecent exposure. Everything that makes Tarantino tumescent — kung-fu fighting, samurai flicks, spaghetti westerns and babe-on-babe head bashing, preferably with swords — is stuffed into the 110 minutes of Vol. 1. No use hammering Tarantino for raiding the lost ark of 1970s pop culture when his movie is killingly funny, wildly inventive, bloody as a gushing artery and heart-stoppingly beautiful. Tarantino has the talent to show us what’s sacred about the profane, even if you didn’t enjoy a misspent youth in seedy theaters with floors sticky from God knows what. In Kill Bill, Tarantino brings delicious sin back to movies — the thrill you get from something down, dirty and dangerous.
Tarantino sets the mood with a faded logo, complete with scratchy sound, announcing our feature presentation, to be shown in shaw scope, a homage to the Shaw brothers, the Chinese producers of 1970s epics such as Death Kick. And what if you don’t know the Shaw brothers from the Olsen twins? No sweat. Sure it’s more fun if you get the references, but Tarantino knows how to grab you hard.
Uma Thurman is a gorgeous tower of power as the Bride. She was done wrong by her boss, Bill (David Carradine, heard but not seen in Vol. 1), and her former buds at DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad), including O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). At her wedding in Texas, the Bride — pregnant (by Bill) and ready to go straight and marry a civilian — is rudely surprised when the divas bust in, kill the groom, beat her senseless and leave her and her unborn child for the gravedigger. Four years later, this pussycat emerges from a coma ready to kill, kill, kill.
That’s the setup for Tarantino to film each scene in a different style (cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke both work miracles) that may reference Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity or, for all I know, home movies from Tarantino’s crazy cousin. The story hopscotches from Pasadena, California, where the Bride confronts Vernita at home, to Okinawa, where she finds ninja Hattori Hanzo, played by the great Sonny Chiba, who did the same role in the Japanese TV series Shadow Warriors. Hattori makes the Bride a sword to take on O-Ren Ishii and her black-suited yakuzas. How did O-Ren rise to the top of the Tokyo underworld? Tarantino tells her back story in an anime sequence of startling vividness. But that’s just a warm-up for the Bride’s showdown with O-Ren and her thugs at the House of Blue Leaves, a nightclub that turns into a battlefield. It’s a fight scene for the ages, expertly choreographed by Tarantino and martial-arts adviser Yuen Wo-Ping, who outdoes his Matrix magic. Computers generated all those Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded. But the Yakuzas aren’t digital. They bleed. And it’s not all in fun. You can feel their pain.
Harsh reality intrudes on all Tarantino films — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the underrated Jackie Brown and even this one. When the Bride, ready to pounce, visits Vernita at home, a school bus pulls up carrying Vernita’s young daughter. The Bride sees that her actions will have consequences, and we see it, too. It’s these consequences that give the film dramatic weight and make it more than a Tarantino masturbatory fantasy or chop-socky’s greatest hits. When the Bride cuts through O-Ren’s 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 the gore. I feared that Liu had become a one-trick pony, her cold-bitch shtick hitting a new low in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. But she brings fire and feeling to O-Ren. And wait till you see Chiaki Kuriyama as O-Ren’s mace-swinging teen bodyguard Go Go Yubari and Julie Dreyfus as Sofie Fatale, O-Ren’s multilingual assistant. Hot stuff — though no one beats Thurman for sizzle. She’s a warrior goddess, up there with Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. It’s Thurman, in her best performance yet, who raises the bar on the role and the movie by showing that the Bride’s battle is not without honor or humanity.
For Tarantino, who set aside his skill at dialogue to show he can do pure action, the film is a challenge to his ego. Ads trumpet Kill Bill as “the Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino.” Talk about hubris. Fellini didn’t even start counting till 8 1/2. But moxie is part of Tarantino’s DNA. Who else would make his first film in six years a wet kiss to kung fu and pack it with his fetishes for ultraviolence, Uma Thurman’s feet and music from Nancy Sinatra to RZA? And who else could pull it off? Kill Bill is damn near as good as Tarantino thinks it is.