Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.
After waking from a four-year coma, a woman seeks revenge on the people who tried to kill her…
What does QT do? The idea for Kill Bill came about on the set of Pulp Fiction when Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman busked the basic storyline. Tarantino wrote a few pages, but then got distracted by other projects. Returning to it years later, he came up with such a massive script that – after he’d directed the film – the decision was made to cut it into two volumes. (This is a review of Vol. 1 only.) There’s a special credit to acknowledge Thurman’s contribution: ‘Based on the character of The Bride, created by Q&U.’
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) wants to kill the gang of assassins who attacked her while she was pregnant and put her in a coma. We never learn her real name: the one time it’s mentioned is bleeped out. She used to be a member of the gang – the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – until they turned against her. (Her codename was Black Mamba.) Uma Thurman gives a very straight-ahead performance, but the script doesn’t ask for anything else.
* Bill (David Carradine) – codename Snake Charmer – is the leader of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. He doesn’t feature much in this first film and is framed so we never see his face, which builds up his mystery and power.
* Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) – codename Copperhead – is the first squad member we see the Bride go after. She’s now seemingly retired from the assassination game and is living with her daughter in suburbia.
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) investigates the attack on the Bride. He’s assisted by Edgar (James Parks, Michael’s real-life son), who he refers to as ‘Son Number One’.
* Ell Driver (Daryl Hannah) – codename California Mountain Snake – shows up at the hospital when the Bride is in a coma and is just about to finish the job when Bill calls and tells her to stop. She wears an eye patch.
* Buck (Michael Bowen) works at the hospital and takes $75 from a redneck (Jonathan Loughran) so he can rape the comatose Bride. She’s recently woken up, though, so kills them both.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) – codename Sidewinder – is another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but this is just a cameo to set up his role in the second movie.
* O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) – codename Cottonmouth – is introduced to us via an eight-minute anime sequence, which tells her backstory and features a fair amount of graphic violence and some paedophilia. In the present day, she’s a mob boss in Toyko who’s backed up by her personal army, the Crazy 88s.
* Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) is a swordmaster who the Bride visits in Okinawa.
* Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) is O-Ren’s friend and consigliere.
* Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is one of O-Ren’s best fighters: a young girl in a school uniform who likes killing people.
* Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu) is the head of the Crazy 88s, who all wear Kato masks. The massive fight scene between the Bride and the Crazy 88s features some outrageous violence. The scene turns black-and-white so the gushes of blood don’t get overpowering.
Returning actors: Uma Thurman was in Pulp Fiction. Michael Madsen was in Reservoir Dogs. Michael Parks returns to play his From Dusk Till Dawn character again (see Connections). Michael Bowen had been in Jackie Brown. Sonny Chiba was mentioned in True Romance.
Music: Lots of pre-existing songs are used to give the film a certain sweep and grandeur, such as the sorrowful Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) by Nancy Sinatra, incidental music from a 1972 Italian film called The Grand Duel, and even a bit of Gheorghe Zamfir, whose panpipe track The Lonely Shepherd sounds like a mournful theme from a Spaghetti Western. The klaxon-like sting of Quincy Jones’s Ironside theme tune is used when the Bride sees one of her targets, while the title music from The Green Hornet TV show scores her journey to Tokyo. Japanese rock trio The 5,6,7,8’s play a few songs on screen in the House of Blue Leaves sequence. The most famous track in the film is the bombastic Battle Without Honor or Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, used for slo-mo shots of O-Ren and her entourage. But the best is Santa Esmerdalda’s epic disco cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which gives the Bride’s showdown with O-Ren beauty and grace. There’s some bespoke score for the first time on a Tarantino film: a few short cues written by RZA.
Time shifts and chapters: The story is told in discrete chapters with on-screen titles (‘2’, ‘The Blood-Splattered Bride’, ‘The Origin of O-Ren’, ‘The Man From Okinawa’ and ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’). The events play out in chronological order, other than: a brief prologue showing Bill shooting the Bride on her wedding day; the anime scene, which is flashback to a character’s childhood; and the fact the opening chapter is set after all the others. Putting the Vernita sequence first certainly kicks the film off with a big fight, but the order in which the Bride goes after her foes seems arbitrary.
Connections: The character of Earl McGraw first appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn – he’s again played by Michael Parks. (Additionally, *Edgar* McGraw had been in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money.) Sonny Chiba’s Kill Bill character, Hattori Hanzo, is intended to be a descendant of the various historical Hattori Hanzos played by Chiba in his 1980s TV show Shadow Warriors. The concept of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad is reminiscent of the Fox Force Five TV pilot described by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction.
Review: Tarantino has always used what writer DK Holm calls ‘magpieism’, a habit of referencing, alluding to, or downright stealing from other movies. Reservoir Dogs is Quentin’s spin on a heist caper; Pulp Fiction is a modern film noir; Jackie Brown is a homage to blaxploitation cinema; and they each feature dozens of postmodern nods to other films (and TV shows and songs). However, along with the conventions and quotations, these movies have their own spirits, their own identities. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a pastiche of various genres (action, martial arts, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge), but it’s hard to see much substance beneath the style. Even with outlandish characters and plots, the earlier films took place in a recognisably ‘real’ world. Kill Bill, on the other hand, is set in a universe where assassins work in squads and give themselves codenames, where Japanese mobsters wear masks, and where you need to acquire a specially made sword in order to kill a rival. It’s a cartoon world – literally so in the anime sequence. If anything, maybe this movie falls between two stools. If it had been even more stylised, more surreal, more out-there, it might work better. But too often the joke is so earnest it doesn’t stretch very far. (Speaking of comedy, a ‘funny’ scene with Sonny Chiba falls on its face and the film becomes very dull for a while.) In the movie’s favour, the action is violent, well shot and sound-designed to hell (just listen to all those whooshes!). And it’s a story dominated by women, which is refreshing. The Bride, her three main adversaries and a couple of other important characters are all female. But even though it’s fun as 100 minutes of escapism, you miss the loaded dialogue, interesting characters and dark wit of previous Tarantino films.
Seven dishes best served cold (old Klingon proverb) out of 10