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While the rest of Hollywood has been trying to catch up with Hong Kong, Quentin Tarantino has been studying Japanese pulp fiction. His tribute to samurai movies was so long that it’s being released in two volumes (look for part 2 next spring).

Revenge Again

A roomful of Yakuza are no match for Uma in Tarantino territory
A roomful of Yakuza are no match for Uma in Tarantino territory
A timely rental, but an unwise investment with its replacement due within the year
A timely rental, but an unwise investment with its replacement due within the year

Kill Bill Vol. 1 looks like a Tarantino version of Charlie’s Angels. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, AKA Black Momba (she says her name twice, but the audience never gets to hear it). The “Angels,” in her case, were the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, led by the off-screen Bill (David Carradine). When Momba tried to leave the vipers to get married, they turned on her. They wiped out her entire wedding party and left her for dead.

But Black Momba/The Bride survived, and four years later, after waking from her coma, she sets out for revenge. In a Mead notebook, she writes five names in giant red letters (which is odd; considering how driven she is, it seems unlikely she’s going to forget anyone’s name). The list ends with a big, bold, BILL.

There’s nothing particularly original about the plot. Revenge has been done to death, and beautiful but deadly assassins have been in movies since before Sean Connery played James Bond.

That’s not to say that the storytelling is bland. Tarantino plays with time. Like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill is told in chapters and presented out of sequence. According to Newsweek, Tarantino told cinematographer Robert Richardson to make every reel look like a different movie. One sequence is even presented as a ten-minute anime cartoon with almost no dialogue. (The sequence involves a pedophile, so I suspect the animation helped prevent the film from getting a dreaded NC-17, as if blood geysers from headless bodies weren’t reason enough to leave the kids at home).

Tarantino Territory

No discussion of Tarantino’s style would be complete without mentioning his love for violence and gore, of which there is plenty in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

While Hollywood has been mimicking Hong Kong action for a decade, Tarantino finds new inspiration in Japan. Samurai-movie legend Sonny Chiba served as a technical consultant on the film and has a supporting role.

The swordfights in samurai movies are lightning-fast. They are sprints, not marathons. There are no guns and very little kung fu. Japanese fight scenes are often over in the blink of an eye, and it often takes a few seconds to see who remains standing and who topples over.

Best Served Cold

Tarantino includes several grand fight scenes in this samurai style. And while most critics point to the cartoonish, stylized violence of these fight scenes, Tarantino still manages to shock with violence elsewhere. Maybe the most horrible scene of the movie is The Bride’s righteous, adrenalin-fueled attack on the orderly who has been selling her body to horny rednecks while she was in a coma. We don’t even see much blood when she kills “Buck,” but the sound of her attack is merciless, and the dying twitch of Buck’s leg is horrible.

And yet Tarantino gives the scene two emotional twists, first by making it justified (who could blame a woman for taking revenge on the man who sold tickets to gang rape her), and second by The Bride being so cold about it.

A lesser director would cut to a closeup of self-righteous empowerment, something like Thurman saying “Take that, you bastard!” A scene like that might try to make audiences feel good about this horrible act of violence. But Tarantino gives his heroine the moral high ground, such as it is, and then makes her take her revenge coldly, out of necessity rather than emotional satisfaction. That’s unexpected considering the entire plot is driven by revenge. Perhaps that’s why the movie opens with a quote from Star Trek II: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Brilliantly Twisted

Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, and Vivica A. Fox also make appearances. Perhaps the best small role belongs to Chiaki Kuriyama who plays Go Go, the right-hand “man” of O-ren (Liu), the Chinese leader of a Japanese gang. After The Bride kills about thirty masked Yakuza swordsmen, Go Go is sent — alone — to dispatch her. When Go Go reveals her weapon — a modern-looking stainless steel mace — you’ll know you’re watching a brilliantly twisted, violent filmmaker having fun.

It’s hard to recommend Kill Bill Vol. 1 widely because the violence is so heavy, but Tarantino seems to know what he’s doing. Maybe Kill Bill is not quite art, but it can’t be easily dismissed.