The premier contemporary filmmaker for just about anyone who became a cinephile in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino returns from a six-year layoff with Kill Bill: Volume 1, the first half of his epic martial arts/revenge tale that seemingly references every movie Tarantino has ever seen. But more than mere mimicry, Kill Bill is the year's most exciting movie, and a welcome return to form for the groundbreaking director of Pulp Fiction. In fact, it's the first "low-awaited" film in memory that hasn't disapointed.
The product of a nearly two-year shoot that resulted in so much footage that the film was ultimately split in two by Miramax higher-ups, 'Volume 1' represents the combination of parody, homage, rip-off that we've come to expect from Tarantino, this time focusing on his favorite kung fu/martial arts films, the way his previous film, 1997's Jackie Brown, zeroed in on blaxploitation. But while Jackie Brown was clunky in parts and not particularly memorable, 'Bill' is exhilarating from start to finish.
Starring Tarantino's Pulp Fiction leading lady Uma Thurman as a character known only as "The Bride" (her name is spoken, but bleeped out), an assassin who is beaten, shot, and left for dead at her own wedding but survives, and threatens revenge on her former boss, a man known only as Bill (played, in voice only, by David Carradine). But first she must go through his veritable army of henchmen and women, who include Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, and an American-born Tokyo underworld boss played by Lucy Liu.
Now the problem with many of the recent "elite blockbuster" action movies- especially the last couple Star Wars and Matrix pictures - has been villains who were poorly established and not particularly compelling. In that respect Kill Bill is a breath of fresh air, establishing colourful, interesting villains using such novel tactics as a long anime sequence, that introduces the Liu character, and later a couple of short, Wes Anderson-like vignettes that introduce characters - the best of which are Liu dealing with "discension" in a board meeting, and her 17-year-old evil schoolgirl sidekick (Chiaki Kuriyama), shown "dealing with" a suitor's unwelcome advances.
The film's brilliant third act takes place in Tokyo, a very different Tokyo than the one glimpsed in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Using swords, knives, and her own cunning, The Bride fights through Liu's henchmen, known as "The Crazy 88s" (because there are 88 of them- it's a LONG scene). The first half is augmented by an all-girl Japanese band playing American go-go music, a very-Tarantino comment on the influences American and Japanese cultures practically collapsing onto one another.
The music is good, the performances are very good, and the fights are amazing. But what's most memorable is the blood - Kill Bill likely sets a new record for most severed appendages in one movie, especially if heads are included. Tarantino seems particularly in love with the image of blood squirting out of the holes left by severed limbs, as he includes shots of that at least a dozen times. It's no wonder the Village Voice called 'Bill' "the most violent American movie ever made." Much of it is cartoonish, but it still works as action.
When I took my first film class as a college freshman in 1996, Pulp Fiction was still fresh in everyone's minds, thanks to its many imitators and Tarantino's constant cameos in other people's films. Most of my friends and I believed QT was no less than the brilliant filmmaker in history. And while subsequent discovery of Scorsese, Hitchcock and others made most of us eventually revise our opinions, Tarantino has shown with his new film that he's still the best director of his generation. Kill Bill's sequel is just five months away, after which hopefully Tarantino will then embrace a prolificity to go with his immense talent.