In his review of the DVD, John J. Puccio called "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" a "gymnastic ballet of violence and a veritable orgy in blood." Nicely put. It's also a slick, comic-book style masterpiece of black humor that has headless necks and armless shoulders spewing blood like fire hydrants opened on a hot summer's day. This film is constantly hot, with zero quiet moments and just as few insights into character. It's all as developmentally thin and stylistically thick as a graphic novel--and it turns out to be based on The Bride by Q & U. As with graphic novels, the emphasis is on the visuals, and even with all that blood Quentin Tarantino offers a fairly spellbinding feast for the eyes. It's a visual and stylistic achievement, to be sure. So is it fair to criticize the film for what it's not?
I won't get into the whole brouhaha over director Tarantino's alleged inability (or unwillingness) to edit this into a single movie, or Miramax's alleged greed in suggesting that the film be released in two installments. Tarantino fans are going to buy these no matter what, and those who aren't Tarantino-lovers won't give them a second look.
But fans of "Pulp Fiction" will be immediately struck by the paucity of smart dialogue. The red flags go up in the first extended sequence, where two female assassins can't seem to think of anything more clever to say to each other than "bitch," over and over. Words aren't the thing this time around. Visual cleverness is what matters, and stylistically, this really is a gruesome martial arts ballet, with blood substituting for dialogue. People fly through the air, things slow down, bullets are seen in point-of-view exaggeration, and split screens reinforce the image of both a stylistic tour de force and a comic-book narrative. Dialogue isn't important. In fact, when people talk, it weakens the film.
Told in flashbacks and incorporating animated and black-and-white sequences, "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" begins with one female assassin seeking out another who's settled down and had a child in suburbia. A number of kids see their parents killed in this film, and Tarantino deliberately embraces shock as a form of titillation, something that's all but confirmed when we observe that one of the Yakuzas the heroine takes on is dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl, complete with plaid skirt, white blouse, and baggy white socks. Kinky? You bet. If this were an all-out comedy, it would be the equivalent of a Fem-bot.
So who are these vipers, this group of female assassins, and who's this Bill guy that the title character wants to kill? Consider them polar opposites of "Charlie's Angels," with Bill the heard-but-not-seen leader in this first installment, just like Charlie. Only these women are angels of death. Through flashbacks we see how the DVAs interrupted a pregnant bride's wedding by killing all of them, with The Bride (Uma Thurman) somehow surviving a bullet to the head and coming out of a coma after four years. And if you thought the schoolgirl Yakuza was kinky, wait till you see what a hospital orderly does with people in a coma.
The Bride is the ultimate avenger, ticking names off a list as she whacks them. She knows who each of these people is, and not just their names--she knows their code names as well, which means, of course, that she's an insider. Each "hit" is a chapter--with supertitles another way that Tarantino reinforces the idea of the comic-book film. There's really not much more plot than one hit after the other, with choreographed martial arts sequences providing nearly non-stop action. Don't look for a moral, and don't look for any character development. Don't even look for brilliant performances-though Lucy Liu handles deadpan just as adroitly as Thurman. Everything--actors included--takes a back seat to the visual look of the film, which means that some viewers are going to love it, while others will hate it. More than "Pulp Fiction," it reminds me of "Sin City" for its sheer emphasis on comic-book violence.
There does come a time, though, when the violence and the choreography start to get a little familiar. But about that time we get the cliffhanger that ends the film--or rather, this installment of the film. Fans had to return to theaters to see Vol. 2, and that displays a lot of confidence (or audacity) on the part of the filmmakers, and home theater viewers are going to have to buy "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" to see how it all turns out.
Because this is a highly visual film, fans had to have been hoping for a significant visual upgrade. Well, I think a frame-by-frame comparison will have some viewers squinting to see differences. But videophiles will notice an improved sense of 3-dimensionality and colors in some scenes that seem more vivid and saturated. And yes, you'll notice more detail, especially in low-light sequences. To the naked eye, the film seemed pretty darned good in standard def, and it will strike most average movie fans as a slight but significant improvement in 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec, BD-50 disc). Some scenes really stand out, though, as when we see the martial arts ballet with snow falling, or as shadows against a brilliant blue backdrop. In moments like these, you want to be watching in 1080p. Trust me. It's an upgrade.
The audio is a sparkling PCM 5.1 uncompressed surround (48kHz/24-bit) that really brings the music into the visual equation as an important factor in our accepting all the blood and gore as martial arts ballet. This is a startling, in-your-face movie, and some of the sounds distributed across the channels can also be startling--as when an object is kicked from someone's hand and we hear it tinkle on the ground on a left or right main speaker. There's significant rear-speaker action as well, though it's intermittent. But overall, there's a nice rich timbre and a crisp, precise sound that makes every sigh and grunt feel as if it's magnified. Steps across the floor? Chilling. Additional audio options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
The transfer is a good one except for one curious thing: there are around three random, brief, high-pitched beeps. I've never run across that before.
If you're looking for Blu-ray bonuses, sorry Charlie, there's none here. But a 20-minute making-of feature isn't bad-at least you get a sense of what Tarantino was trying to do in this film, and there's plenty on the influences that helped shape his vision. But you'd better enjoy the heck out of this, because there isn't much else. There's only a few musical performances by "5,6,7,8's" and trailers for other Tarantino films: "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown," and both "Kill Bills."
It's not my taste, but I can appreciate what Tarantino is trying to do. As a comic-strip film and a parody of his other violent movies "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" is almost flawless. But for sheer entertainment value, Tarantino's vision might not line up exactly with his audiences. Some might wish for more plot, more characterization, and less blood. A lot less blood.