Finally, here's ''the 4th film by Quentin Tarantino,'' as labeled by Miramax. Only it isn't really. It's actually the first half of Tarantino's blood-soaked tribute to grindhouse cinema, but slashing the three-hour globetrotting revenge saga into two volumes pays dividends.
Forget the Chicks Who Love Guns; meet the Babes Who Dig Blades. Hardly a moment goes by without one of Kill Bill's lethal ladies indulging in a knife fight or swordplay. Vol. 1 opens with an assassin known as the Bride (Uma Thurman) who quickly gets over her wedding day jitters by being shot and left for dead--the price she paid for skipping out on her lover and boss, Bill (David Carradine), to marry another man. The comatose Bride wakes up four years later with payback on her mind but can't get to Bill without first taking on his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad's members. In Vol. 1, that means going all kung fu on Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), who's been hiding out as a California soccer mom, and unsheathing her sword to dethrone Yakuza mob boss Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu). That leaves California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah) and Sidewinder (Reservoir Dogs veteran Michael Madsen) for Vol. 2. Tarantino does close Vol. 1 with a surprise revelation, indicating Vol. 2 could be more than just the quest for retribution. Stripped bare of its fanciful narrative flourishes, Vol. 1 is no different than any vicious recounts of women seeking revenge, such as Ms. 45 or I Spit on Your Grave. But that doesn't matter to Tarantino. He's not out to say anything fresh or profound about retribution; he just wants to tell an old story in the most brazen and stylish way possible. Unfortunately, though, Tarantino's love for toying with narrative structure backfires on him this time. It worked for Pulp Fiction as Tarantino sought to tell several self-contained stories. It also allowed him to film a portion of Jackie Brown from several perspectives. But Vol. 1 doesn't need to constantly jump back and forth like it does. This is an unambiguous tale of revenge that can be told without unnecessarily disrupting its narrative flow. Slicing Kill Bill into two parts does work. The only problem is that it only just hits its stride when it comes to an abrupt end. You feel a little cheated that you can't see the entire film in one three-hour sitting. And you can't wait to see how Thurman knocks off Bill, if indeed she does.
Put your best game face on. That seems to be the only advice Tarantino gives his women warriors, and Thurman rises to the occasion after her two halfhearted attempts at action, Batman & Robin and The Avengers. This is a labor-intensive affair that finds Thurman pushing herself beyond the peak of her physical prowess, best demonstrated during the climatic fight at the House of Blue Leaves nightclub, a breathtaking 20-minute showdown between the Bride and Cottonmouth's goons. She's so strong and agile she could tear the wings off all three Charlie's Angels in one fell swoop--which Thurman practically gets to do considering Liu's Cottonmouth is her mightiest adversary. Speaking predominately in Japanese, Liu is just as emotionally vacuous as Cottonmouth as she was in last year's Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. But at least in Vol. 1 she looks cool and sexy armed with a samurai sword. Liu's overshadowed by Cottonmouth's henchwoman Go Go Yubari, played with steely intensity by Chiaki Kuriyama of Battle Royale infamy. She looks, acts and dresses like a schoolgirl, but she's as dangerous as the spiked ball and chain she wields. Too bad she gets knocked off before she can do some real damage. Thurman's other opponent, Fox, is street-tough in the same mold as blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier--Foxy Brown gone bad. Despite making only a fleeting appearance, Hannah makes her presence heavily felt as California Mountain Snake. There's just something about this eye patch-wearing nasty glamor gal that indicates she's going to be the source of some delicious mischief in Vol. 2. As for the object of the Bride's hatred, David Carradine barely makes an appearance as the eponymous bad guy; he will have to wait until Vol. 2 is released Feb. 20 to find out whether he'll receive a career boost equal to those John Travolta and Robert Forster got after working with Tarantino. For Vol. 1, that honor goes to Japan's legendary martial arts master Sonny Chiba of Streetfighter fame. Ironically, Chiba doesn't spill a drop of blood as samurai swordsmith Hattori Hanzo, a character he played in the Shadow Warriors series. Instead, he brings much-needed humor and wisdom to the grisly proceedings.
Tarantino the director thankfully trumps Tarantino the screenwriter. Imagine taking a broken seat in that rundown, urine-drenched movie theater Christian Slater ran in the Tarantino-penned True Romance to watch a Streetfighter double-bill. That's how Tarantino would prefer us to experience Kill Bill, his first film since 1997's Jackie Brown. Of course, it's tough to duplicate the glory days of the grindhouse in this era of the hygienic and family friendly multiplex. But that doesn't stop
Tarantino from paying homage to the spaghetti westerns, chopsocky sagas, Japanese anime and blaxploitation classics that he so adores. He even employs the old logo of the Shaw Brothers studio--responsible for numerous kung fu classics in the '60s and '70s--to kickstart the fun. Told in chapters that reference these specific film genres, Kill Bill Vol. 1 sees the Reservoir Dog foaming at the mouth again after the grand funkiness of Pulp Fiction and the cool detachment of Jackie Brown. It's a relentless tidal wave of blood from start to finish that makes Bad Boys II look as tame as Boys on the Side. But Tarantino makes no apologies for the violence he orchestrates with such boyish enthusiasm that you sit transfixed, wondering how many other inventive ways he can dispose of a human life. The showdown at the House of Blue Leaves chapter is simply one of the best clashes ever committed to film, one which Tarantino perfected over eight weeks with the aid of Iron Monkey director Yuen Woo-ping. Tarantino balances the gore with large doses of humor. The funniest moment comes when the Bride, still paralyzed from being in a coma, tries to will her big toe to move. There's nothing like a shot of Thurman's
hysterically gigantic feet to take your take mind off a murder committed minutes before. Yet even Tarantino has his limits, and he presents some of the gorier scenes in anime, black and white or in silhouette to minimize the bloodshed, perhaps for ratings reasons.
Vol. 1 doesn't top Pulp Fiction as Quentin Tarantino's crowning achievement, but it is
definitely worth the long wait. Then again, even half of a Tarantino film is twice as good as any thriller we've seen all year. And it leaves you counting down the days until Tarantino unleashes Vol. 2.