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Kill Bill

volume 1

What if your local film school had six years and fifty million dollars to make a movie?

The result would be a big budget cacophony of interesting techniques and ideas produced by people who spend their lives studying film. If the movie was based on a genre of foreign film the result might be like drinking the water in that foreign country; you can drink it, but if you're not used to it, it may make you sick. And if the film school was actual film buff Quentin Tarantino, the film would deliver that foreign film straight to middle America like a butcher knife to the chest.

Kill Bill is the story of a retired assassin, code named Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) and left for dead by her former employer and coworkers. Four years later she begins the video game-like plot of climbing the rungs of the revenge ladder toward her ultimate goal, killing Bill.

I apologize for doing so, but I've just given you the entire plot of Kill Bill vol. 1 (and likely vol. 2 due out in February of 2004). It's a tale of pure revenge. There is no emotion other than rage and no obstacles for the main character that can't be overcome by force.

Tarantino's homage to the 70's Japanese action films of his youth isn't rich in plot or character development but neither are the films he is paying homage to. I can't fault him for perfectly copying a flawed genre. Kill Bill is not about deep characters, clever plots or good storytelling. It is meant, by design, to be a literal showcase showdown of action scenes and attitude. Here is where Tarantino delivers. He promises fans a kickass tribute to Japanese fight films and most of Kill Bill is a raging success in that regard. The second half of the film is so flawless in its beautiful cinematic carnage that most of the things that don't work in the first hour are long forgotten.

The movie moves at a kinetic pace as we learn just enough about each character to string the fight scenes together. Battles are perfectly choreographed and displayed on the screen like polished gems. This is refreshing since a fistful of recent action film directors haven't had the knack to properly lay out a fight scene audiences can follow.

Tarantino skillfully presents each punch, kick and swing of the blade in an elegant manner but still manages to make it visceral and raw. You're never quite able to take your eyes away from the butchery for fear of missing something amazingly cool.

The writer/director can be brilliant at times. Pulp Fiction is a shining example of how he can borrow a dozen different storytelling techniques to glorify violence and wrap them up in a way that is palatable to the mainstream audience. If you're sensitive to blood and violence (go see a different movie) there are a few scenes that will make you turn away, but eventually the blood flow becomes almost cartoonish. You may find yourself laughing as blood flows from severed body parts like water from uncapped fire hydrants.

When things get really gory, the film switches to black and white, a technique that minimizes the impact of the massacre and probably saved the film from an NC-17 rating.

But Tarantino can also get too caught up in his own hip dialogue, pop culture references and personal fetishes to make a film seamless. If you've seen Tarantino's other three films, then at times Kill Bill will be like watching William Shatner do a William Shatner impression. Kill Bill is closer to brilliance than it is parody but never actually lands a perfect blow.

Uma Thurman carries the weight of the acting in Vol. 1 as Black Mamba (we are forced to call her that because her real name is bleeped every time someone says it). Thurman understands Tarantino's vision, seems comfortable in the genre and delivers the goods. She fills in her paper-thin character as tightly as her leather motorcycle outfit.

The only other major character with screen time in Vol 1. is O-Ren Ishii aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu). Like the other roles in the film, Liu just has to look good in her costume, be convincing in the fight scenes and speak the occasional phrase. She does fine in the role but her performance isn't going to make up for her part in Ecks vs. Sever.

Assuming they can get past the violence and gore, the second hurdle for audience members to get over is the fifteen minute animated back-story of O-Ren. You'll either love it or be bored by it. Anime really isn't my thing but I can see where some fans may get off on it.

Vivica A. Fox and Chiaki Kuriyama round out the other notable assassins (don't call them mini-bosses) in Vol. 1. Fox portrays the badass assassin "Copperhead" with convincing authority. She's got the body and the moves to pull it off with enough acting talent to not stand out but she's not going to be the break out star of the film either.

That award goes to Chiaki Kuriyama aka GoGo. The lethal Japanese school girl steals every scene she's in and is guaranteed to cause an outbreak of "deadly school girl" costumes this Halloween (a byproduct of the film I have no problems with.)

Japanese film legend Sonny Chiba plays "The Man from Okinawa," a retired sword maker who offers to help Black Mamba kill Bill. His scenes are some of the most enjoyable, of the non-violent variety, in the film and serve as a minor back-story for Black Mamba. More than that they give the audience a chance to settle down before the major showdown that ends Vol. 1. Some of the slower scenes linger too long but it was unclear if Tarantino was trying to stress importance or just padding the film.

Kill Bill only aspires to be a B-movie and succeeds at that. It's going to be a cult film that will appeal to young men who dig bloody action films. Tarantino does not make films for the masses. He makes them for hardcore film fans and those losers in high school that owned their own kendo sticks. It will not impress your mother, your wife or your girlfriend (unless she has pierced nipples and loves shoot fighting).

No review of a Tarantino film would be complete without mentioning the soundtrack. Kill Bill has the same groovy, quirky underscoring as his previous films. The screening I attended actually had fans clapping along to the disco beats while warriors on screen mutilated each other.

Tarantino mixes Japanese pop, opera, disco and western music equally but he also has the smarts to know when to not use music. The audience learns over the course of 90 minutes that when the music stops you'd better be on the edge of your seat.

Tarantino has said that Kill Bill is the "ultimate girl power" movie, but the power really lies in the movie itself. It has the power to spark mainstream interest in a cult genre and will provide a revival of the Japanese action films of old. It has the power to cause a severe backlash from parent and government groups regarding the level of violence in modern cinema.

It has the power to spawn a hundred copycat films of lesser quality that will be all gore and no substance. It has the power to make film geeks shell out money again and again for every platinum edition, special edition, Director's Cut, THX, DTS, lemon scented DVD, DiVX, Laser Disc and vinyl version Miramax can crank out over the next 20 years.

It does not have the power to get a perfect rating from me, but it comes within a razor's edge of doing so.


Michael Goodson

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