“Overkill Bill” might be a more appropriate title for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, a spectacularly flamboyant homage to the genre films–especially the Hong Kong kung-fu flicks of the 1970s–that the writer-director feasted on in his video-store days. A picture made by a fanboy (though a very talented one) for fanboys, “Kill Bill” was originally a martial-arts revenge epic of some three hours, but at the urging of the studio Tarantino chopped it in half, with the initial segment now being released as “Vol. 1.” The second part is scheduled to follow early next year.
Whatever you might think of the distribution arrangement, this installment stands perfectly well on its own, closing at a pretty natural cliff-hanger point. (Of course, I say this as one of the fortunate few who don’t actually shell out hard cash for each movie. Those who do may protest carving the piece in two more vociferously.) The fact that Tarantino’s is a serial-like, episodic tale means that it lends itself naturally to such division. “Kill Bill” basically portrays a one-fight-after-another narrative of vengeance undertaken by a long-comatose young woman against her erstwhile colleagues in an assassination squad, who had massacred her wedding party and left her for dead years before. The heroine, played by the lithe and limber Uma Thurman in a succession of tight-fitting outfits (the yellow leather pants suit she dons at the end is especially photogenic), is a martial-arts whiz who intends using her expertise with knives, swords and gymnastic moves to confront her five old comrades in individual matches after coming out of her coma. After a splashy introduction titled “The Blood-Splattered Bride,” showing the slaughter that lies in back of the plot (and offering a rich cameo for Michael Parks as the investigating Texas sheriff), we’re introduced to her in her later form when she takes on one of her targets, a black dynamo (Vivica A. Fox) who’s now a suburban mom. This introductory set-piece is probably the least successful part of the picture; the stylization of the violence is a bit off, and the introduction of a child into the mix gives it a sour taste. It’s followed by a flashback showing how the heroine finally woke from her sleep–a ghostly, sexually-charged episode that not only briefly introduces another of the assassins, a one-eyed blonde (Daryl Hannah) but details how the awakened patient deals with a creep who’s about to rape her and the sleazy attendant he’s paid for the privilege. We then move to the second half of the picture, dealing with the heroine’s showdown with her erstwhile colleague O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now the boss of the Tokyo mob. After O-Ren’s back story is cleverly revealed in a sequence of bloody Japanese anime (it’s a mini-revenge tale within the larger one) and the bride acquires a samurai sword from master maker Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) during an amusing stop on Okinawa, the stage is set for the final confrontation in Tokyo. The heroine must first dispatch her target’s small army of henchmen (and her chief henchwoman Gogo, played by Chiaki Kuriyama as a girl in school uniform who wields a blade-encrusted mace) before facing off one-on-one against O-Ren–an elaborate swordfight staged in a Japanese garden dusted by falling snow. To be continued.
The influences in all this are legion. There are the Hong Kong pictures, of course (the introductory appearance of the “Shaw Scope” logo so familiar to fans will undoubtedly draw an appreciative chuckle), but many others are at work too, from Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black,” which provides the underlying storyline, to Brian De Palma (the hospital scene, with its mixture of sex and violence, copies his dark, woozy style in spades, and the visuals–complete with a split screen–honor him, too). But the biggest influence apart from the Shaw movies is certainly Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, with which it shares not only the familiar revenge motif (feminized here, but who’s going to complain about the substitution of Thurman for Eastwood or Bronson?) but also many other elements. (One presumes, for example, that the bride’s moniker is bleeped out on the couple of occasions on which it’s spoken so that she effectively becomes “The Woman With No Name.”) Movie buffs will surely enjoy noticing all the references, and aficionados of the various genres in particular will exult over Tarantino’s handsome remounting of their conventions.
Others, however, may be less entranced. They’ll certainly admire the choreography of the fight sequences, the quality of the animation, and the cheeky performances by the likes of Parks and Chiba. They’ll probably also find Thurman very nice to look and impressively athletic. (It certainly beats watching her try to act. And her prowess suggests that Ethan Hawke had better watch his back.) And there’s little doubt that they’ll admit the exquisite care that’s been devoted to the sets and staging. But rarely has so much splendor been lavished on such empty material. In the Leone westerns and the better Hong Kong pictures, there was always something emotionally at stake; they weren’t mere exercises in imitation. That’s what “Kill Bill” basically is, though it’s a beautifully made one. In that respect it resembles De Palma’s lesser copies of Hitchcockian thrillers–not the great ones like “Blow Out,” but the more modestly successful ones like “Dressed To Kill.” No wonder the little homage Tarantino inserts to De Palma feels so right. Of course, some will be repulsed by the amount of blood and violence on display here–in the penultimate brawl, the director actually switches to black-and-white to moderate the effect (an excellent decision, too)–though everybody familiar with his previous movies should be prepared for that, or just stay away. But after a Kubrickian length of time between movies, one might have expected something more than just a lovely homage.
Still, “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is an astonishing display of eye-candy, enjoyable on that level. It may be nothing but style without substance–but what style! And it certainly beats the vast majority of pictures, which offer neither.