Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From My Collection: Kill Bill Volume 1 Movie Review

It always felt like Kill Bill needed to be taken as a single four hour movie rather than the two individual parts it was broken into. That seems obvious, right? It’s one story. It was conceived as one film and split up for marketing reasons. But not every multi-part film series necessarily has to be taken as one shot. As incomplete as any one of the Lord of the Rings films is, they can each be taken as films unto themselves individually. Kill Bill Volume 1 feels unfinished in a way that no other “first part” film has ever felt to me, and it all makes a lot more sense after seeing Kill Bill Volume 2.

One of the areas in which Quentin Tarantino’s first three films were so successful was not just that they were the epitome of 90’s cool, but that they also relied on great characters who elicit our sympathy. Tell me you’re not right there with Vincent Vega in his desperation to save Mia from overdose. Part of the failure – and it’s really a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things – of Kill Bill Volume 1 is the ineffectiveness of the screenplay in engaging the audience on an emotional level. The big payoffs don’t come until the second movie, which is why I really feel like it should be taken in singular.

As much as Tarantino’s first three films broke with convention in a number of ways, they remain relatively conventional in their overall presentation. Kill Bill doesn’t reside in the real world the way his earlier films do. It is a mĂ©lange of styles ranging from kung fu to spaghetti western, neo noir to Tokyo gangster anime, with characters saying and doing things that just don’t mesh with reality. Yuen Wo Ping’s virtuoso fight choreography in the startling climax calls forth the mystical fantasy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the virtual acrobatics of The Matrix much more than the down-to-earth martial arts style of Bruce Lee or even the comedic Jackie Chan. Tarantino’s scheme for the movie strikes me as a whimsical film geeks imagination run wild. This makes for an interesting watch for other film geeks, even those (myself included) whose knowledge of cinema is bereft of most of Tarantino’s sources of inspiration. These include, but are not limited to kung fu cinema, samurai films (The Bride visits a sword maker played by Sonny Chiba, his presence being another little in-joke), gangster films, and even anime, which provides the matte for an origin story of one of The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) victims.

Her victims are stepping stones on her way to playing out a revenge fantasy – revenge for her former associates and lover beating her within inches of life, murdering her entire wedding party – fiancĂ© included – and her unborn child, then putting a bullet in her head. You can understand her frustration and displeasure with the other members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In Volume 1 she deals first in the narrative, but second chronologically, with Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) in a close-quarters hand-to-hand fight in a living room. This fight arrives as the second scene in the film, jolting the audience to life and leaving us anticipating more to come before it takes an extended break to fill us in on some crucial details. Then it ends up in Tokyo where The Bride dispatches with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) after about 80 or so henchmen whose severed limbs and writhing torsos remain strewn throughout the nightclub where this melee takes place. The other two members (played by Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen) will be dealt with in Volume 2.

Yes, Tarantino once again employs a breakup of chronology which this time around feels more about technique and living up to expectations than about genuine service to the story. That’s not to say it’s entirely capricious. There is something to be said for closing the movie with an epic battle rather than a relatively quiet one-to-one knife fight, but whereas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction depend on a reordered narrative, it feels like Kill Bill could work without it, albeit with occasional flashbacks.

But too much is shrouded in mystery for Volume 1 to really function well as a movie. Bill himself is especially hidden. We see only his hand and hear his voice. Tarantino saves the reveal of David Carradine for the next part. And we learn nothing of why The Bride was targeted for assassination by her lover and friends which makes it incredibly difficult to feel anything for her in understanding why revenge has become her sole motivator. Not to mention we don’t even know her name because Tarantino toys with us by beeping it out every time someone speaks it. The movie is a great deal of fun even if it is like a big insider’s joke that probably only Tarantino gets. I just wish it could be edited back into a single film.

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