Should I Watch..? 'Kill Bill: Volume 1'
What's the big deal?
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a martial-arts action film released in 2003 and was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Based on a character created by Tarantino and star Uma Thurman during production of Pulp Fiction, the film sees a woman recover from an attempted murder at the hands of her former colleagues in an elite squad of assassins and her desire for revenge. The film stars Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox and Sonny Chiba. The film is intended to be a homage to grindhouse cinema including martial-arts films, samurai cinema and spaghetti westerns. Originally conceived as a single film, Tarantino later decided to split the film into two parts - Volume 2 was released in 2004. It was the most successful film in Tarantino's career at the time with global takings over $180 million and the film received a mostly warm response from critics who cited Tarantino's skill as a direction and the film's style but were critical of the overly simplistic narrative.
What's it about?
Four years ago, a pregnant woman in a wedding dress is the only survivor of a brutal massacre at a church in El Paso, Texas. The Bride is rushed to hospital clinging to life who place her in a coma to give her the best chance of surviving. The people responsible for the bloodshed are the Bride's former colleagues at the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, led by her former lover and father to her child Bill. After four years, she wakes up just before she is pimped out by one of her nurses. Killing both the nurse and her would be rapist, she is distraught to find that she is no longer pregnant and escapes in a stolen car.
Determined to get revenge, she makes a list of her enemies and their locations - Triad boss O-Ren Ishii, suburban housewife Vernita Green, psychotic killer Elle Driver, trailer-park bouncer Budd and finally Bill. The Bride travels to Japan to acquire a sword from legendary smith Hattori Hanzo as well as track down O-Ren to her base at the House Of Blue Leaves restaurant in Tokyo for a bloody showdown...
The Bride / Black Mamba
O-Ren Ishii / Cottonmouth
Bill / Snake Charmer
Vivica A. Fox
Vernita Green / Copperhead
Budd / Sidewinder
Elle Driver / California Mountain Snake
Johnny Mo, head of the Crazy 88
Release Date (UK)
17th October, 2003
What's to like?
Tarantino films were always seen as very stylish reproductions of faded film styles from the trashy crime magazines of the Fifties in Pulp Fiction to the Blaxploitation era in Jackie Brown. However, they were also criticised for the levels of violence shown and with Kill Bill, Tarantino decides to finally give his audience what they expected. Without question, this is his bloodiest film to date with few scenes escaping without some of the red stuff splashing onto sets, costumes and faces (if you watch the trailer above, that ain't motor oil on the Bride's clothes). At least the combat is an array of fisticuffs and sword-fights which allows such action to be beautifully choreographed and brilliantly shot - the entire sequence at the House Of Blue Leaves is some of the best filmed action I've ever seen, backed by the timeless rock-and-roll of the 5,6,7,8's. It's so good that I've included it as one of my themes during my radio show.
The film doesn't allow much in the way of plot development once the action gets going, meaning that most of the characterisation is left for part 2. That said, Thurman makes the Bride feel human instead of the unstoppable killing machine she seems to be. The film doesn't have too much interest in explaining itself too much but again, this keeps it in line with its inspirations like Game Of Death and Death Rides A Horse. Speaking of which, elements of that film's score are included as part of this film's eclectic soundtrack and the haunting melody of Gheorghe Zamfir's performance of The Lonely Shepard echoes in your ears over the closing credits.
- Christopher Allen Nelson, who worked in the makeup department for both films, revealed in an interview that some 450 gallons of fake blood was used over the course of filming both parts.
- Tarantino was a big fan of Battle Royale which starred Kuriyama, who he cast as the school-girl bodyguard of O-Ren Ishii. He might have regretted the decision when shooting the scene where she flings her ball-and-chain towards the camera as she struck the director square in the head.
- The photography turning to black-and-white during the Crazy 88 carnage was originally unintended. The censors demanded that the scene be toned down due to the amount of blood shown, an old trick used by US TV networks showing kung fu films from the 1970's and 80's. Thus, not only does it tone down the amount of blood shown but also acts as a homage.
- A popular fan theory suggests that the film is actually the failed pilot Fox Force Five that Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) talks about appearing in during Pulp Fiction. Another theory suggests that the fleeting cameo by Samuel L. Jackson hints at the fate met by his character Jules Winnfield from the same film.
What's not to like?
As talented a director as Tarantino is, his real strengths has always been dealing with characters rather than action sequences. In most of his early films, the violence was always off-screen but in Kill Bill, Tarantino explicitly brings such acts to the centre of the screen which is fine but I prefer to let my imagination fill in the blanks. Violence for the sake of violence (which this first part seems to revel in)seems like... dare I say it, lazy screenwriting? I enjoy QT's films enormously and if I ever write a film half as good as any of his, I can die a happy man. But of the films I'd seen of his so far, this is probably my least favourite.
The story isn't strong enough to sustain one movie, let alone two. Regardless of how much padding there is, this is a fairly straight-forward revenge film but one given epic proportions. Character development is left entirely to the second film, which gives this first part the feel of a videogame being played by an expert - amazing to watch but rather unfulfilling. The film feels devoid of consequence and lacking any real emotional impact until the very last line. As the blood runs down walls and character's faces, I couldn't help but wonder what could possibly justify such mindless carnage.
Should I watch it?
Tarantino die-hards might call this the best of his films but I disagree. The subtle artistry of films like Pulp Fiction is jettisoned in favour of a blood-and-guts action film featuring some of the most stylised violence cinema has ever witnessed. But for all the enthusiasm of its director and a typically classy soundtrack, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a shallow and unsatisfying experience that feels starkly in contrast to Tarantino's other films to this point.
Great For: gore hounds, action fans, Japanese viewers, rape survivors
Not So Great For: the squeamish, anyone expecting Tarantino's intelligence
What else should I watch?
Kill Bill: Volume 2 thankfully tones down the violence (although it still features a smashing duel between Thurman and a psychotic Hannah) and allows the characters room to breath life into the story. It's a bit more talky than this first instalment and while I appear to be in the minority judging from conversations I've had with people, I still prefer the second film to the first.
Both Kill Bill films signal a change in style for Tarantino, from obscuring the more grisly elements of his stories into not giving much of a hoot about how much he shows. His next film, Death Proof, formed part of the double feature known as Grindhouse with his good friend Robert Rodriguez and features young women trying to survive a crazed stunt driver trying to run them over. After this, QT went on something of a historical trek - Inglourious Basterds is a revisionist World War II epic while his most successful film so far Django Unchained revived the spaghetti western with Jamie Foxx seeking vengeance against his former slave owner.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox