"Blood was its Avatar and its seal--the redness and the horror of blood." --Edgar Allan Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death"
When it comes to blood, Mr. Poe has nothing on writer-director Quentin Tarantino, his fourth feature film, "Kill Bill," being drenched in the stuff.
On the one hand, you've got a master craftsman at the top of his form. In terms of the film's detail and design, Tarantino has constructed an exquisite portrait of violence, beautifully paced, wonderfully choreographed, vividly and imaginatively presented. On the other hand, you've got a motion picture of virtually no consequence--blood, gore, death, and destruction for the sake of cinematic impressionism; technical virtuosity at the expense of substance. It's rather like a surgeon in a butcher shop: The skill is evident in every cut, but it's still just a slice of meat.
However, like most red-blooded American males, I love meat. And "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," is filled with plenty of old-fashioned, blood-red morsels. Tarantino said he was paying tribute in this potpourri concoction to all of the Hong Kong action flicks, all of the Japanese anime, samurai, and yakuza films, and all of the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns he loves so well. And while the director captures the martial-arts movements of the fight scenes with poetic grace and good humor, he also captures the chaotic fury and mayhem of the tale in graphic particulars. In hearts as well as spades.
Still and all, I'd hate to make a steady diet of top sirloins and prime rib, no matter how much I like them; and in the blood-soaked meat department, "Kill Bill" is most definitely overkill, if you'll excuse the expression. Indeed, there is nothing in the film except killing, death, devastation, and blood. It's fascinating to watch for a while, to be sure, but in the end it becomes almost numbing.
Film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco "Chronicle" wrote of the movie, "Let's just call it pornography. And let's just admit it's indefensible." I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that the brutality and implied sexual connotations in "Kill Bill" are obscene or of no artistic merit, but LaSalle does have a point. Tarantino uses violence, no matter how much it's justified as homage or spoof, to titillate and arouse our senses. The scene in the film of a giggling, teenage bodyguard in a short, schoolgirl skirt getting a pair of steel spikes through her brain ("nailed" would apparently be the pun here) while the audience watches her eyes fill up with blood is one of LaSalle's more persuasive examples.
Indeed, much as I admired Tarantino's style, there were parts of "Kill Bill" that I positively despised. Not only did I find the endless repetition of butchery, mutilation, and flying limbs eventually monotonous, but I found an attempted rape scene and several sequences of children witnessing the horrifying murders of their mothers neither funny nor provocative, just tasteless and disturbing.
Of course, no one is expected to take any of this seriously. It's intended as cartoon violence, an extended "Road Runner," if not as amusing. Even Tarantino's use of a lengthy Japanese anime sequence in the middle of the film is supposed to signal cartoon violence, although the director has said he filmed it as an animation because it would have been too gory to show in live action.
Anyway, carping about the film's excessive carnage is one thing, but it's hard to deny at the same time the film's remarkable visual style. Tarantino pulls out all the stops, using every cinematic device at his disposal to make his points: De Palma split screens, eccentric Hitchcockian camera angles, MTV quick cuts, a mix of black-and-white and color photography, bullets flying point blank at the viewer, contrasting and juxtaposing background music, silhouettes, slow motion, stop action, voice-over, flashbacks. You name it and it's in here, most of it effectively used to create a vivid sense of presence and pace.
So, what's it about? Not much. The movie contains a basic revenge plot and little else. A woman is almost killed in a dastardly shooting and lives to get even. That's about it. Uma Thurman stars as a lady known as the Bride, who four years earlier was attacked and left for dead on her wedding day. She also lost her unborn child, her new husband, her priest, and all the guests in her wedding party. Nine dead bodies, the victims of a group known as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which the Bride was once a member. But she survives in a coma, and when she recovers she vows vengeance on all those who assaulted her and killed her loved ones. She goes after them one at a time, starting in Vol. 1 with the first two murderers on her list, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a suburban housewife, and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now the queen of the Tokyo underworld.
The acting is almost as inconsequential as the plot, the players subservient to the movie's havoc. Ms. Thurman portrays her character, code-named "Black Mamba" and the deadliest female alive, as strong and determined; like Eastwood's "Man With No Name," she is Tarantino's "Woman With No Name," come to clean up the town. Ms. Fox's character, code named "Copperhead," is tough and determined. Ms. Liu's character, code named "Cottonmouth," is cool and determined. It is these women's measured determination, their resoluteness, that sets them apart as anything approaching interesting, although none of them have much to do beyond fighting, kicking, and stabbing.
The cast also includes a nice touch in Sonny Chiba, one of Japan's most famous samurai actors, as Hatori Hanzo, a master sword maker. His semi-comic scene in a bar goes on much too long and stops the action momentarily, but it is not unlike many scenes in the older movies Tarantino so adores. Also a nice touch was asking David Carradine, America's Mr. "Kung Fu" himself, to play Bill, the leader of the Vipers, even if he doesn't actually materialize as anything more than a voice in Vol. 1. Finally, there are brief appearances by Daryl Hannah as another Viper on the Bride's hit list and Michael Parks as a Texas sheriff so cool he has an array of sunglasses to choose from on the dashboard of his cruiser. That brought a smile to my face.
Remember, as gross as it becomes, "Kill Bill" is meant as a compliment to and a parody of some of Tarantino's most-cherished films, starting with a corny, scratchy opening logo announcing "Kill Bill" as being presented in the old Shaw Brothers "Shaw Scope," and with an introductory quote, "Death is a dish best served cold," purposely described as an "old Klingon proverb." The line was actually written by Pierre de LaClos (1741-1803) in his book "Les Liasons Dangereuses" over two hundred years ago, but Tarantino reminds us it was also used in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," which makes it, in its own small way, more droll and, of course, sets up the story's revenge motif.
"Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha himself." That's a slogan of the Vipers and of every martial artist in every martial-arts film ever made. I recall something like that line in the 1982 action movie "Duel to the Death," which must have been one of the single biggest influences on the American filmmaker, with everything in it from kung fu to sword fights to severed limbs to exploding body parts. In "Kill Bill" Tarantino also captures the feeling of an earlier era with sometimes cheery, sometimes downbeat, sometimes romantic seventies and eighties background music to accompany the bloodshed, occasionally turning to a Bernard Herrmann, "Psycho" oriented theme.
People like Jackie Chan, John Woo, and the late Bruce Lee would, I'm sure, love all the leaping, prancing, dancing, and flying around in "Kill Bill," a gymnastic ballet of violence and a veritable orgy in blood. Needless to say, as in all kung-fu action films, or Bond films for that matter, nobody just shoots the protagonist. Instead, the Bride must slash her way through her enemies by sword and fist, at one point facing an army of them who keep coming at her by the score, one at a time. Yes, it's fun for the moment, I admit, but I did not find it entirely satisfying in the long run.
Initially, "Kill Bill" was to be one motion picture, but Tarantino was prevailed upon to turn it into two parts when it appeared the project would be unduly long for a single sitting. In my opinion, it would have benefitted from being a single film. Given that after the first hour of this first volume, I was already getting tired of the joke, I'm convinced there is far too little material here for a pair of movies. Already we can see many scenes that appear padded and go on too long. In Volume 2, I foresee more of the same, bloodshed-for-bloodshed's sake, but I'm willing to hold judgment on the issue. Therefore, my 7/10 film rating for Vol. 1 is conditional on its being a part of a bigger entity, the second and final installment of which may or may not hold up its end of the bargain. We'll see.
The movie is presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio measuring approximately 2.16:1 across a normal television. The video is not spectacular, but it is satisfying and free of most digital artifacts. Some moiré effects are evident from the start, but they are not annoying. The fairy-tale pastels of the opening shots are well reproduced, although overall definition is fairly ordinary for a good DVD. Most of the colors in the film are radiant and realistic, emulating the older Hong Kong films the director admires, yet there is a small degree of veiling, too. And, yes, red shows up well, in all its shades.
The audio is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 Surround. In DD 5.1 its predominant traits are its rough glare and its mellow smoothness, depending on what is being underscored at any given moment. Tarantino often plays with the sound to copy the bright, blaring effect of the old musical soundtracks of the movies he's imitating, but just as often he keeps the music soft and resonant. The audio also has a gratifyingly deep and mellow bass, a decent dynamic range, and a moderately strong transient impact. There are a few good bumps, thumps, and crashes, naturally, and a clever mosquito buzz, as well as the sounds of sword clashes, bullets flying, and blood showering all through the listening area. These are not "Master and Commander" state-of-the-art sonics, but they do their job to keep the listener awake and aware.
There aren't a lot of extras on the disc. The main item is a twenty-minute featurette, "The Making of Kill Bill, Volume One," with comments from the director, producer, and stars. At one point Ms. Thurman says, "This film is about justice and redemption." I would beg to differ. To me it was about slashing and slaying for the sake of viewer excitement, and dressing it up in fancy words doesn't change that. Then, there are two musical performances by the 5, 6, 7, 8's, a young, female Japanese rock group that performs in the movie playing and singing old surfer songs; a collection of Quentin Tarantino trailers, including a teaser for "Kill Bill: Vol. 2"; and nineteen scene selections. The spoken language options are English and French; and the subtitles are Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and traditional Chinese, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
I would not discount the possibility of Miramax/Buena Vista issuing a two-disc or three-disc special edition with more bells and whistles when the second installment is released on DVD. Again, we'll have to wait and see.
If Tarantino can do this much with blood and guts and virtually no plot, think what he could do if he set his mind to something more serious. But until that happens, like the war movie he's been working on for so long, we'll have to take what we can get, like this first volume of "Kill Bill." Well, whether you like the present movie or not, the man's still got "Reservoir Dogs," a cult hit, "Pulp Fiction," an acknowledged classic, and "Jackie Brown," a competent adventure, plus a ton of script writing to his credit, and nobody can take that away from him. "Kill Bill" is rated R for intense, graphic violence and some pretty harsh words.
Observation without comment: As of this writing, "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" had earned a domestic box-office gross of $69,902,009. During that same time, Steve Martin's "Cheaper By the Dozen" earned $137,527,680. OK, I do have to comment: What the...!!