Tuesday, April 13, 2004

In honor of it coming out on video Tuesday, here’s my review of “Kill Bill, Volume 1” back from last October. My #3 favorite movie of 2003 (right after “Return of the King” and “Lost In Translation” in case you’re wondering), I’m ready to see it again and introduce the wife to it. It might be a bit much for the baby at this point, though. And of course I’m counting the minutes until I get a chance to see “Volume 2” sometime this weekend...

‘Kill Bill’ a bloody, unforgettable ride on the dark

The very first line spoken in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked revenge thriller “Kill Bill” is, “Do you find me sadistic?”
It’s a question worth asking. “Kill Bill” is an in-your-face, sprawling and stylized smorgasbord of “chop-socky” violence, flashy villainy and clenched-jaw heroism.
It may well be sadistic and brutal, but morality aside, it’s also one of the most entertaining movies of the year, pure cinematic Jolt cola overflowing with a love for the power of the screen.
Uma Thurman is the unnamed “Bride,” an assassin who, in the opening scene, is beaten, shot and left for dead at her wedding by her former employer, Bill, and his crew of flashy, sexy and deadly assassins. It’s like “Charlie’s Angels,” the dark side. The Bride’s groom, her unborn child and many others are killed in the massacre.
The Bride wakes up after four years in a coma with one thought blistering her brain: Revenge. For the following 100-plus minutes of this film and presumably in February 2004’s sequel “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” she gets even.
This is a movie to experience with your gut, not your head. Tarantino, whose last movie was 1997’s understated “Jackie Brown,” has created a love letter from a film geek to his disciples, dripping in hip homages. There’s no pretense of philosophical depth here.
Is it bloody? Oh yeah. It still doesn’t touch my personal record-holder for gore tolerance, Peter Jackson’s zombie flick “Dead-Alive,” but the scenes of disemboweled henchmen, gory decapitation and crimson-soaked beatings aren’t for the faint of heart. But it’s a cartoony kind of violence, because at its heart, “Kill Bill” is a cartoony kind of movie.
It’s definitely not for kids (the “R” is there for a reason, despite the plentiful under-17 crowd that seemed to be at my screening), but it’s a ride you won’t soon forget.
A climactic, much-hyped battle at a Japanese teahouse between The Bride and an army of 88 fighters may be the most visceral and exciting piece of action on film this year.
As The Bride, Thurman gives the best performance of her career. The doe-eyed beauty has often been wasted in junk like “The Avengers.” Tarantino sees the steel in Uma’s eyes, and rewards her by giving her a sympathetic, fiery woman warrior to play, the best female action hero since Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2.” Uma gives a wounded soul to what could’ve been a faceless killing machine. She has to hold pretty much the entire movie on her presence, and she does it well.
The rest of the cast are mostly there to either be killed or threatened by The Bride, although ’70s kung fu star Sonny Chiba makes a memorable impression as a sword maker, and Lucy Liu has a feline menace as the leader of Tokyo’s Yakuza, or gangster clan.
But the real co-star of “Bill” has to be Tarantino, who thankfully doesn’t try to act here. His fanboy passion is in every scene, though. We see the familiar chronological shuffling of “Pulp Fiction” as the movie dances about in time, the soundtrack is filled with obscure pop hits, and film-geek homages pepper nearly every frame of what Tarantino gleefully admits is a hopped-up “B” movie.
But while he’s on fire for much of the film, a few of Tarantino’s far-out stylistic choices don’t quite work — an unnecessary Japanese anime animated flashback sequence, while technically gorgeous, stalls the film for several minutes. And there’s a dubious call to switch to black-and-white for part of one big fight scene (although it probably saved the film from an NC-17 rating — spurting blood is not quite so graphic in shades of gray).
The wisdom of the last-minute decision by Miramax Films and Tarantino to split “Kill Bill” into two parts is also debatable. It definitely would’ve been hard to sit through three hours-plus of this high-octane, ultraviolent ride without gasping for air. But making two movies where one was originally intended can’t help but come off as mercenary and money-grubbing.
Certain characters get the shaft in screen time in “Vol. 1” — namely the titular Bill, played by ’70s “Kung Fu” TV star David Carradine (Tarantino originally wanted Warren Beatty, which would’ve been a treat). We only hear Bill’s voice in “Vol. 1.” Likewise, assassins played by Michael “Reservoir Dogs” Madsen and Daryl Hannah show up only fleetingly.
“Bill” does lack the dazzling, profane and pop culture-laced verbal wordplay of “Reservoir Dogs” or the complicated moral heft of a character like Bruce Willis’ dazed and noble boxer in “Pulp Fiction.” It’s all about the action, the thrills.
“Kill Bill” can’t be totally judged on the basis of “Volume 1” — we don’t learn why Bill wants The Bride dead, we see little character development and the dialogue lacks the quotability of Tarantino’s best work.
But as a 110-minute trailer for “Volume 2,” it gets the job done. I’m ready to buy a ticket for “Kill Bill Vol. 2” right now.
(Rated R for buckets of blood, violence, language, you name it. Definitely not for kids under 13.)
***1/2 of four

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