Friday, December 14, 2012

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) Review

Kill Bill Vol 1 posterPart of Merry Christmas and Happy Tarantino Month!

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba
Genre: Action, Martial Arts

Kill Bill is my favorite action film of all time. And that's what Kill Bill is: an action film; which some people seem to forget.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 is only the first half of the story. It was initially filmed as one film, but due to length issues (it would have ran nearly 4 hours together) it was split into two. Though I highly recommend to watch them one after another, as if it were one long viewing, it's really the best way to go. In this volume we learn the story of The Bride and how she and her husband's wedding had been interrupted by five gunmen, shooting her husband, her, and her unborn baby. But The Bride, unknown to the gunmen, survived the gunshot and was left in a coma for four years. Awoken from the coma by a blood-sucking mosquito, a dark twist on the Snow White tale, and then greeted by the bloody kiss of a man who had paid one of the nurses to have sex with her while comatose, The Bride is indeed angry, and she wants her revenge on those who crashed her wedding.

I mentioned that Kill Bill is an action film (the first volume especially), but that's not to say that all Martial Arts films are Action films. No, Kill Bill just happens to be both.

The film has a lazy, unoriginal plot. It's like every revenge story told before it. After all, there's only a handful of action films that have plots as good as other genres. Kill Bill can be summed up by its name: it's about a guy named Bill, who someone wants to kill. If you're looking for a great plot or original story, don't watch Kill Bill

For a Tarantino film the writing is pretty mediocre. Tarantino, a writer known for his great dialogue, really didn't write any good dialogue for this first volume of Kill Bill. In fact, the film is so fast paced that it's rare that characters even have the chance to have a conversation. Compared to Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs or even Jackie Brown, Kill Bill's dialogue is a joke. Don't get me wrong though, there's some really awesome lines in here, like when Hattori Hanzo gives The Bride her sword and says "I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword. If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut." That's an awesome line, and Kill Bill has plenty of those, but it lacks in good dialogue. It's something that has plagued many Action films since the '80s, they have no shortage of cool one-liners, but they can never find the time for genuinely good writing. 

House of Blue Leaves fight in Kill Bill

The characters are definitely interesting, though they're highly undeveloped and unrelatable. The film hardly even gives you time to sympathize with The Bride's revenge. 

The Action in Kill Bill though is excellent. It's fast, it's gory, it's violent, it's over the top, it's thrilling. The fight choreographer was none other than Yuen Woo-Ping. Woo-Ping has been working in kung fu films since the late sixties and he even directed the Jackie Chan classic Drunken Master, but his most notable work is his fight choreography on more recent films like The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kung Fu Hustle or Jet Li's Fearless. It's undeniable that Yuen Woo-Ping is a master of his craft and he does as good a job as ever with his work on Kill Bill

The fighting is fast and just very insanely cool. Many of the kills just leave me impressed and with a smile on my face. It's all exaggerated violence and there's constantly blood spurting everywhere. The kill count nears the triple digits, and the House of Blue Leaves scene is just incredibly enjoyable to watch. There's not really much unarmed combat in here, as you'd expect in many of the Shaw Brothers kung fu films which Kill Bill was inspired by. It's mostly sword fighting, but there's some other interesting weapons thrown in, like flails. 

Sword fight in the snow in Kill Bill

One thing I'm sick of hearing from film critics about movies in general is when they say that a film has style over substance. Since when was style a bad thing? Kill Bill is a beautifully shot film with gorgeous sets and landscapes and every aspect of it is highly stylized. Substance, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is a fundamental or characteristic part or quality. Kill Bill's style is it's substance. 

Kill Bill, and in fact all Tarantino films, are often criticized for their "borrowing" from other films. Indeed their is a fine line between homage, imitation, and theft, but if anyone knows how to maneuver between those lines it's Tarantino. I'll be honest, there's not much originality in Kill Bill. Even many of its lines are taken straight out of other films. Any moviegoer can easily notice dozens and dozens of references, ripped shots, stolen lines, character's inspirations, etc. 

Gogo bloody eyes in Kill Bill

From the Shaw Brothers intro Tarantino makes it clear that Kill Bill has obvious influences and inspirations. Its concept is essentially taken from The Bride Wore Black, it's story (and other things) is nearly exactly the same as Lady Snowblood, it gets its characters from both those two films and other films like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (of which it also shares a similar plot) or from Executioners from Shaolin. The outfit that The Bride wears is straight out of Bruce Lee's unfinished Game of Death, the masks that the Crazy 88s wear are exactly the same as the one worn by Bruce Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet (which paints an odd picture of Bruce Lee killing 88 other Bruce Lees). Kill Bill was obviously influenced by genres like kung fu, spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, Japanese yakuza films, Chinese wuxia films, Chambara films, exploitation, Rape and Revenge, etc.

Elle Driver in Kill Bill

Many shots and camera movements are taken from other films, though, to his credit, Tarantino does show us some cool original shots, particularly the overhead ones. But, all in all, Kill Bill is not an original film. It kind of just throws all the cool things Tarantino has watched together. Which begs the question: is that really so bad? Well, normally I'd say yes, that is bad and terribly uncreative. But the way I see it, as someone who has watched a great percentage of the Shaw Brothers catalog and has watched many of the same films Tarantino has which he borrowed from, Kill Bill really does feel more like an homage than it does a theft. Stanley Kubrick once said that he often wondered what it would be like to shoot a pornographic film with a very large budget and a professional crew and respected director, but all the meanwhile keeping the things that are key in porn, i.e., weak plots, etc. Kill Bill is kind of like that. It's a B-Movie with a large budget, high production, and a talented director.

Uma Thurman swords Kill Bill

John Powers in LA Weekly called Kill Bill "a grindhouse Ulysses". Jim Smith called it a Noah's Ark of pop culture cliches. It is rare to see James Joyce's Ulysses criticized for being a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey, with many similar events and characters. Joyce took something that was already great (Odyssey) and made it his own. Tarantino took a genre that was never looked upon very fondly by the mainstream audiences, a genre that lacked the recognition it deserved, and he not only brought the genre to the mainstream but he also made it his own....though perhaps not enough so. If anything could benefit Kill Bill, I will be the first to admit, it would be some extra creativity. But I doubt anyone could have translated exploitation and kung fu films from the '70s as well as Tarantino. 

Sure it's a self indulgent film, and it's pretty much just Tarantino showing us how much of a film buff he is...but it's fucking awesome nonetheless. 

Uma Thurman as Black Mamba the Bride in Kill Bill

The cast in Kill Bill is great. Uma Thurman, who Tarantino had a "major artistic love affair" with, does a wonderful job. Lucy Liu plays the role that she always seems so perfect to play (no that's not stereotyping, she really does do fabulous work in any samurai role she touches) and she's an incredible charm to watch. Gordon Liu (who any kung fu fan is familiar with) has a great small role as a member of the Crazy 88s (he also has another, different role in Volume 2). 

Lucy Liu in Kill Bill

The soundtrack here is stellar. RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan composed all the original score, and I'd name Kill Bill along with Afro Samurai as some of his best work to date. There's a great variety of music in the film: rockabilly, hip-hop, surf rock, pop, enka. The soundtrack has some really awesome tracks. Nancy Sinatra's cover of "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" has always been one of my favorite songs and it fits the film so well. "Flower of Carnage" which was originally in Lady Snowblood is in here and is actually sung by the actress who played Lady Snowblood, Meiko Kaji. The awesome Japanese rock band The's also have a cool cameo in here. 

Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo Kill Bill

I can easily understand why someone can dislike Kill Bill. It makes perfect sense to me. It's not very original being the main complaint along with its seeming dismissal of plot or character development. But Kill Bill is one of my favorite Action films, and I never really expect plot or character development from the Action genre. And the films that Kill Bill borrows from or steals from or imitates or pays homage to or whatever you want to call it, are all films that I really love. I love Shaw Brothers kung fu films and Bruce Lee movies and spaghetti westerns, and Kill Bill kind of feels like an evolution of all that. And at the very least, even if I were to hate Kill Bill (which I don't) I doubt I'd ever find it unenjoyable. And I can understand how fans of films which Kill Bill borrows from may not like it because they look at it as theft or they rather just watch the original stuff...I can understand that. But what I can't understand is people who are fans of the films in which Kill Bill borrows from that can't enjoy Kill Bill. If you enjoy what Kill Bill is based off of, you will enjoy Kill Bill

5/5 stars

Purchase Kill Bill Vol. 1 on Amazon: Blu-Ray - DVD - Stream - Vol. 1 & 2 Double Feature

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