film review: Kill Bill: Volume 1 ***1/2

Whatever worries people have about Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited fourth film will be slashed to pieces in the first minutes alone. The bug-eyed, eccentric filmmaker has seemingly been running around Japan’s neon streets gobbling ecstasy since Jackie Brown came out in 1997, but his new film, Kill Bill, is destined to put his giant forehead back in the spotlight.

Tarantino helped spark the independent film revolution of the early ’90s with Reservoir Dogs, a tiny budget crime thriller that was just as concerned with being cool as it was with John Wooish blood lust. Thus, the Tarantino style was born, or, more accurately, it was finally revealed after years in the lab of a video store. The edgy, witty violence that Tarantino employs in most of his work comes from years of studying the films of Woo, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and countless foreign directors.

After Reservoir Dogs sounded out a bark heard all around the nation in 1992, QT pierced the pop culture stratosphere with Pulp Fiction, a beautiful collage of retro gunplay and witty, sexy banter between classically volatile characters. Pumping cash into Miramax like John Holmes, Fiction was also a college kid favorite at the Oscars, leaving Tarantino to party and go through showbiz dames like the then hot Mira Sorvino. Three years later, Jackie Brown, a respectable enough ode to blaxploitation, was released to the disappointment of many Cheeto-munching Net heads – it was simply too old skool slow dance for ordinary fans.

Jump a few years later, and we have Harry Knowles-propelled rumors about Tarantino’s newest film, a mega-tribute to the over-the-top martial arts chop-socky and spaghetti westerns he grew up on. For fans craving a hit of Tarantino’s brutality and rage it’s high strength smack. For those wishing to hear that customary snappy dialogue of yesteryear, well, as Sven Barth says, whommp whommp.

Screw the latter though, because Kill Bill is so fun to watch. The film has a wild child sense of humor about itself, and never hesitates to shower viewers with clever and entertaining references to Bruce Lee, the Shaw Brothers, and other kung fu movie badasses. By sticking to this style, the characters don’t have much to say; instead, their emotions are conveyed via zooming in on wrinkled eyebrows as the film’s threatening music sirens.

Opening on Uma Thurman’s beaten face, we’re slowly told how and why it’s bloodied and bruised. Flashbacks are revealed over the course of the entire film, but basically Thurman was pregnant and near marriage when the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (unexplainably shortened to DiVAS) ambushes her. A team of assassins she was once a part of, they are led and advised by the title character.

Comparable to Patricia Arquette’s bout with James Gandolfini in True Romance, the scene is horrific and difficult to watch, yet sets the tone for the rest of Kill Bill. Known only as The Bride, Thurman’s character miraculously survives and lays in a coma for four years Hard to Kill style, before randomly awaking with a shriek in a hospital of shadows. Revenge is immediate and the red tides are a flowing from here on.

She ventures off to a small house in the suburbs and confronts one of the assassins (Vivica A. Fox) in a knife fight as seen in the modest trailer. From here, she jets to Tokyo, where she battles a more mysterious and dangerous lady-killer (Lucy Liu), protected by a band of masked ninjas. The chaos is pushed full throttle and the camera is thrown into fun mode, resulting in astonishing movements and ridiculously long and well-choreographed shots.

As The Bride, Thurman is enthralling to watch, all confidence and slickness, which adds up to an indestructible feeling that hovers over the character like a comic book superhero. Watching her decapitate hundreds, literally, of towering Japanese fighters with a single, thin bladed sword is obviously surreal, but this is purposeful in case you think otherwise. The other casting choices are solid, as always for a QT epic. Fox is surprisingly effective during the adrenalin-fueled knife fight, and the Net head despised Liu actually nails several intense scenes with perfection. Eighties poster girl Daryl Hannah (Splash), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), and David Carradine (“Kung Fu”) have characters who will develop much further in Volume 2, which is said to incorporate more of a Sergio Leone-style western feel.

Miramax’s dictator Harvey Weinstein has become nefarious for shredding directors’ films into tighter and more marketable packages – see Gangs of New York. But Tarantino is the golden child, and is spared such cuts, in favor of a, perhaps risky, two- volume set. Yet, on screen it’s amazing that this was merely a business afterthought, as Volume 1 ends with such a satisfying cliffhanger – it seems totally natural. When Weinstein announced the game plan, the media jumped on the change as a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the correct choice, because subjecting an audience to three hours of nonstop mayhem would only result in people jabbing each other in the aisles with sharpened candy bars – and you thought seeing Friday in the theatre was bad.

While a few slow spots early on keep Kill Bill from claiming a flawless victory, it stands as an exciting and enjoyable welcome back piece for Tarantino. Oscar will surely look the other way, but this flick will go down as one of the more intense and impressive films of the year. Someone start the countdown to February.

Shawn Wines can be reached at