The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Quirky at the right moments, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Very straightforward plot and plot execution
The Basics: Very violent and gory in an almost comic way, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is very much a Quentin Tarantino classic.
There are few directors who illicit a "love it or hate it" reaction like Quentin Tarantino. I suspect largely that comes from the fact that Tarantino creates a very specific type of movie as opposed to actually liking or hating the specific works of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino's films, the ones he writes and directs on his own, tend to be violent films that are not so much action adventure as they are quirky dramas. Often overshadowed by the sheer volume of gore and/or violence, many casual viewers of Tarantino films overlook the fact that his movies are packed with weird dialogue and his films tend to be surprisingly verbose. I tend to take Tarantino's works as they come. I, for example, enjoyed Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, but felt no strong attachment to Reservoir Dogs. In fact, I felt Reservoir Dogs was overrated and so when my wife wanted us to watch the two Kill Bill films, I was more indifferent than excited or actively disinterested.
After watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1, it is easy to see why Quentin Tarantino has such a loyal audience as he does. The first of two Kill Bill films is weird, funny (often in dark ways) and exceptionally gory. In fact, there are scenes with such over-the-top gore on-screen that they had to be depicted using animated sequences as opposed to live-action presentations. And the way I knew how much I enjoyed Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was in how I wanted immediately to see the second volume. But for fans of the other works written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, they will find the first Kill Bill film to be surprisingly light on dialogue. There are a few explanations, but largely Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a straightforward revenge story that follows one woman on a bloody rampage around the world.
After having her head shot by a vindictive masochist, the Bride is left for dead by a group of assassins on the day of her wedding (actually, it's the rehearsal, but that doesn't come up until the next film). She awakens, four years later, in a hospital with her muscles atrophied and a strong sense of injustice about what has happened to her. So, she begins to hunt those who wronged her. She stops at the home of Vernita Green, now a housewife with a daughter, where a bloody catfight ensues and the Bride tries to get information on the whereabouts of Bill, the man who led the group of assassins.
The Bride is crossing her enemies off a list as she nears Bill and in the process, she relates the backstory of how she was nearly killed, how she recovered and of her initial relationship with Bill. Her sword, an original by Hattori Hanzo, is explained and her tenure with Hanzo is illustrated. And after her apparent resurrection, she goes after O-Ren Ishii and the Crazy 88s, her personal army of trained killers.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is intended to be a fairly direct story about bad people who do bad things and ultimately pay the price for it. The biggest problem with the story, outside the way the battles become somewhat monolithic as they progress, is that the ending is known to even less-than attentive viewers almost from the beginning. When the Bride goes to dispatch Vernita, we see her list and O-Ren Ishii's name is crossed off above it. Thus, the viewer knows throughout the entire sequence of the Bride fighting the small army (my partner and I counted seventy-two, as opposed to eighty-eight) of O-Ren Ishii's goons that the Bride will not only not die, she will slaughter O-Ren.
This is Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu magnum opus and for those who are not fond of kung-fu films, there is little getting around the fact that this is full of people hitting, kicking, and slicing one another up. I'm not a huge fan of the genre - in fact, I can only recall seeing Kung-Fu Hustle from the genre before this - but Quentin Tarantino's sense of mixing up the story points and visual stylings make the film flow well with violence and an excess of dark humor. The story, like many of Tarantino's is told out of chronological order and while the Bride's main story is a direct tale of revenge wherein the Bride hunts the four people who wronged her leading her to Bill, her former lover and commander, the divergences to explain her sword and the rise of O-Ren Ishi as part of the criminal underground add some spice to an otherwise monotonous plot.
Even the Bride, though, is not terribly good, which is obvious from some of the movie's first frames when she gets bloody revenge upon Vernita. It is hard to feel bad about the Bride, despite the fact that she had been sexually abused while in her coma, given how she violently exhibits her wrath at every opportunity. And there are plenty of chances for the Bride to not only be merciful, but go about her search for Bill another way. Of course, this isn't that type of story; Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a straightforward revenge tale, which is why the Bride goes after O-Ren first, making sure to take out one of her strongest challenges immediately. And as far as revenge flicks go, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a solid start.
Part of what makes this bloodbath of a film so worthwhile is the acting. Because most of the characters are monolithic bad guys or the heroine, it is hard to say that any of the characters are even remotely likable. In fact, coming out of "Vol. 1" there is much we do not know about any of the characters. We know that the Bride was pregnant when she was shot by Bill and that while in the coma she was sexually abused, but we know little about her other than that she is filled with a furious anger and those associates she once ran with are all trained killers and are largely unlikable. In fact, by the simple act of having a child, living in a neighborhood and trying to negotiate with the Bride, Vernita is granted more character depth and information than either the Bride or Bill.
Vernita is played by Vivica A. Fox and the role is unlike anything Fox has taken on before. Absent is her strong comic ability and she realistically plays a ruthless killer who is trying to live as a normal woman in suburbia. She plays the part perfectly with a wonderful, upstanding quality that endures her entire scene. By contrast, Lucy Liu plays O-Ren Ishii in a similar way to how she has played many other villains who appear, fight and leave the film. Liu is well-cast, but not extraordinary in the role, easily outshined by Chiaki Kuriyama, who lays O-Ren's psychopathic protege Gogo.
The strength of the movie often comes to Uma Thurman to make work and Thurman does a surprisingly good job as the Bride. Usually I rail against Hollywood-thin women, but Thurman is great as the atrophied Bride and while it takes Tarantino a while to illustrate it, her recovery is reasonable and well-represented. Thurman has an intensity to her eyes that makes playing scenes opposite only her own foot work. She takes on an action hero quality for the role of the Bride and she is engaging - or at least realistic, as much as such a fantasy film can be - in the part.
On DVD, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 comes with a preview of the next film and a behind-the-scenes featurette. There is a commentary track which is informative and fun, and most of the track is on the development of the story and the shooting of the movies as opposed to plot points, which makes the track interesting to viewers.
Ultimately, though, this is a like-it or hate-it type movie; it is excessively violent, light on character and even plot and the stylized gore is often over-the-top. But for that type movie, a Quentin Tarantino movie, it does exactly what it sets out to do.
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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