Kill Bill, Volume 1

(2003) *** R
93 min. Miramax. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox.

"The words "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this." —Pauline Kael

Quentin Tarantino makes movies for movies' sake. An unapologetic pulp scribe, Tarantino thinks nothing (or is it everything?) of dropping scores of allusions to the beloved pop culture of his youth into his movie-universe comedy-tragedies. It's all part of the arch postmodernism that makes this loony, nostalgia-act promoter who he is: repellent child to some, cult hero to others. Six years after his relatively restrained Jackie Brown, Tarantino returns in an excessive mood: Kill Bill, Volume 1 is just half of the maestro's instructional film on projectile bleeding.

The self-consciously refined opening titles literally and figuratively announce that this is "The 4th Film By Quentin Tarantino": to the loaded tune of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," the director rolls out a series of movie-opening jokes and surprises, from a vintage "Our Feature Presentation" announcement to a scroll of "Guest Stars" and behind-the-scenes talent (Martial Arts Advisor Yuen Wo-Ping! Original Music by The RZA!). By the time the story—inspired by Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black—begins, we've sat through another "teaser trailer" for the film.

And what of the story? As in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Pulp Fiction, prepares his revenge dish like a Benihana chef, chopping it and tossing it in a dazzling display that's as appealing (if not more) than the meal itself. Flashing back and forward, the writer-director tells the tall tale of "the Bride" (Uma Thurman), a former member of "The Deadly Viper Assasination Squad." Betrayed by the team and left (for dead) at the altar, the Bride has a score to settle, so she begins ticking off names on a "Death List." First on the list: Vivica A. Fox's Vernita Green (a.k.a. "Copperhead"), who fiercely thrusts and parries with the Bride (a.k.a. "Black Mamba") as Vernita's four-year-old daughter pulls up to their Pasadena home in a school bus...last on the list, the Squad's mystery-shrouded leader, the titular Bill (David Carradine).

For all of Tarantino's fancy dancing, that's pretty much it. Amid flashbacks to the Bride's bloody betrayal, she trains herself to be back in killing shape, then sets out to kill a bunch of people. Since this is Volume 1, she only faces the first two names on her list, the second being Lucy Liu's O-Ren (a.k.a. "Cottonmouth"). The showdowns with "Copperhead" and "Cottonmouth" sandwich teases of the others on the list: Daryl Hannah's Elle Driver ("California Mountain Snake") and Michael Madsen's Budd ("Sidewinder"), still decked out in his Reservoir Dogs black-and-whites. Among numerous amusing cameos, martial-arts elder statesman Sonny Chiba has the most memorable as the Bride's sword-making mentor.

Though Kill Bill is a glib and insubstantial orgy of ultra-violence for the kid in you (which ultimately becomes numbing to the adult around the time the Isley Brothers's "Nobody But Me" kicks in under showers of blood), no one can claim it lacks style. Stealing the moves of (and often directly quoting) the likes of the Shaw Brothers, Seijun Suzuki, and Kinji Fukasaku, Tarantino whips up awe-inspiring duels and epic battles in the martial arts vein. Abandoning the ambivalence of Charlie's Angels' catfights, Tarantino isn't happy until his Bride has decimated a roomful of men and women, suggesting a parody of Gone With the Wind's wide shot of a blood-soaked, body-ridden street.

Tarantino also throws in some black-and-white photography for good measure, partly to suggest flashback or tunnel-vision mania in the heat of battle, but perhaps also to accomodate the skills of DP Robert Richardson (JFK). The climactic battle bathes Liu and Thurman in blue under gently falling snow. Like the candy-colored clown they call the sandman, Tarantino tiptoes into our movie dreams, when he's not stampeding.

With the film split, "Volume 1" has plenty of time for filigreed sidetracks, like a transit scene to the tune of the Green Hornet theme (itself a jazzed-up allusion), a DePalma-esque split screen sequence, and a lengthy anime sequence providing the graphic-novel-intense origin of O-Ren (anime "cred" provided by Production I.G.). The latter two scenes are scored to Herrmann and Morricone, respectively. The whole movie has the effect Cole Porter described in "At Long Last Love": "Is it an earthquake, or simply a shock?/Is it the good turtle soup, or is it merely the mock?" Something borrowed, something bloody. Death does us part, but only 'til Volume 2.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: 5.1 Uncompressed, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 9/9/2008

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Buena Vista Home Entertainment sends Kill Bill home on Blu-ray for the first time with an hugely satisfying high-def upgrade. Soundly besting the previous DVD editions, the new Blu-ray discs capture every varied nuance of cinematographer Robert Richardson's color and black-and-white imagery. It's a film-like image that also serves up razor-sharp detail and brilliant color that use Blu-ray to its best advantage. In the film's brightest and darkest pockets, contrast provides a bit of a challenge, but with an image free of edge enhancement and other digital artifacts, Tarantino fans can buy with confidence. Vibrant uncompressed PCM 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks give surround immersion and serious "kick" to the martial arts action and robust RZA score.

In the extras department, you'll find "The Making of Kill Bill" (22:05), covering the film's script, cast (especially Uma Thurman and Sonny Chiba), music (especially the 5,6,7,8's), shooting locations (especially the Beijing Film Studios), themes, and cinematic and TV inspirations with Quentin Tarantino, Thurman, Julie Dreyfus, Vivica A. Fox, Lawrence Bender, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, and the RZA. Another nifty bonus is "The 5, 6, 7, 8's Musical Performances" (5:52), comprising "I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield" and "I'm Blue." Lastly, there's a gallery of Tarantino Trailers: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1 Teaser, Kill Bill Vol. 1 Bootleg Trailer, and Kill Bill Vol. 2 Teaser.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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