Everything old is new again—and again—in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Fun and smart, but undeniably thin, the first installment of Tarantino’s action epic is a fanboy fever dream. The clichés are out in maximum force, tempting any critic fool enough to go one-on-one with the master. (The prize: a Ph.D. in Tarantinology.)
What’s the meta? Revenge, as the movie’s first bromide reminds us, is a dish best served cold, and Kill Bill‘s saga of serial vengeance is one massive icebox raid. Tarantino layers slices from every chopsocky spaghetti western yakuza blaxploitation flick he’s ever seen on the already borrowed premise of François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, spices these with stunts by Master Yuen Wo-Ping and themes from ’70s TV shows, then ladles a mess of anime sauce over the whole Dagwood sandwich.
Nor does he forget the ketchup. But despite the outrageous body count, nothing tops the opening attention-grabber. A sockadelic cheezorama flashback sets the table for kung fu mayhem in a Pasadena living room—the deep-space spectacle of a five-year-old girl returning home from school available through the picture window. There’s not much innocence in the Tarantino world—but neither is there any real consequence, except for his cartoon characters.
Part of a Charlie’s Angelsoid outfit known as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the character identified as The Bride (Uma Thurman) was attacked on her wedding day by minions of her former employer and ex-lover Bill—a massacre that left the bridegroom and guests dead. After four years in a coma, a blatantly flimsy deus ex machina kisses sleeping beauty and sends her out, suitably ballistic. First victim: the male nurse who’s been abusing his charge needs to be chastised. If Kill Bill has a subtext, it’s all about the danger of disrespecting women—or at least this one.
As the avenging angel, Thurman is no Pam Grier; she exhibits only adequate physical authority in a punishingly physical role. As her director, Tarantino provides adequate support—when The Bride splits heads, he splits the screen. The action moves to Japan, allowing The Bride (and The Director) to consort with erstwhile martial-arts icon Sonny Chiba. This Alphaville frisson prepares The Bride to confront the formidable O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) in a paper-wall disco, complete with all-girl go-go band—a page of modness that might have been lifted from a Seijun Suzuki movie and probably was.
Presently Tarantino introduces the choreographed yakuza bloodbath madness of a Kinji Fukasaku flick, using Fukasaku actress Chiaki Kuriyama as a demonic schoolgirl, as well as music from his Battle Without Honor and Humanity. Kill Bill‘s sound mix is even more impressive than its editing. Mayhem on the dancefloor is set to the insinuating wah-wah of gurgling blood. The flamenco stomp that underscores the moonlit face-off in a formal garden—rustic fountain hilariously placed in the foreground—tap-dances rings around the coda to Takeshi Kitano’s samurai ballet Zatoichi.
Flowing no less freely than blood, a stream of ersatz Eastern wisdom irrigates the action. But despite a 42-page press book, Kill Bill has scarcely more dialogue than a Road Runner cartoon. The filmmaker’s verbal wit is largely restricted to his punning character names: Sofie Fatale, Johnny Mo (as in Zhang Yimou), and, my favorite, Elle Driver. The latter, played by Daryl Hannah and tricked out as a killer nurse with a red cross on her eye patch, has a getup worthy of a Jack Kirby comic book.
As all fanboys know, Harvey Weinstein prevailed upon Tarantino to divide Kill Bill in two, like Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen or The Tiger of Eschnapur. But Lang, the mad genius of juvenile trash and extravagant social metaphor, did not substitute a movie for the zeitgeist; his greatest films transform zeitgeist into movie (and then back into zeitgeist). Overheated as he is, Tarantino is too cool to care—which is why, even at a svelte 95 minutes, this series of set pieces and sight gags feels more exhausting than invigorating.
The displaced oedipal struggle between the all-powerful, as yet unseen Bill and his betrayed Bride hints at a psychological investment on the part of the filmmaker that never galvanizes the material. To label the opening salvo Vol. 1 suggests that it is a collection of riffs. Vol. 2, still being edited, is due in early 2004. Whether that installment—or, more likely, some mondo combined form—will supply the movie with some necessary weight remains to be seen.