Tarantino suppressed his film fanatic side -- a little too much -- for the more realistic but poky-paced character study Jackie Brown in 1997. For his follow-up, Kill Bill, Tarantino the movie buff returns with a vengeance. The director has given his geek side so much free rein that the straight-ahead revenge pic ballooned to an operatic epic so long it's being released in two parts.
The first installment of Tarantino's comeback, Kill Bill Volume 1, proves a loving yet overblown bid to compress a decade's worth of kickass drive-in fare into a single night at the movies.
"Kung Fu" star David Carradine plays the title character, but we never see Bill's face in Volume 1. In the film's first scene, shot in high-contrast black-and-white, we hear his silky voice address a savagely beaten bride (Uma Thurman) before he fires a gun at her head. The opening credits give way to a burst of color as the Bride -- uninjured -- arrives in Pasadena's pastel suburbs. A middle-class home becomes an arena for a savage knife-fight between the bride and Vivica Fox, playing one of Bill's lethal former employees.
Kill Bill unfolds in chapters deliberately presented out of sequence -- Fox's scene is, chronologically, the last section of Volume 1. The next chapter fills in some blanks. Comatose and pregnant, the Bride was the only survivor of a wedding chapel massacre, led by her ex-cohorts in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Four years later, the Bride awakens to learn that in the intervening years she lost her baby and has been unknowingly raped by sleazy hospital orderlies. She sets out vowing revenge on the Squad, saving Bill for last.
Most of Volume 1 takes place in Japan, as the Bride seeks a samurai sword from a retired weapons expert, played by legendary Japanese action star Sonny Chiba. Her first target is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), now head of the Tokyo mob. An anime-style flashback recounts the murder of O-Ren's parents and the beginning of her criminal career. It's cleverly animated -- and unspeakably violent.
The level of gore is one of Kill Bill's calling cards, with the major action scenes having more severed limbs and arterial fountains than any non-zombie movie you've ever seen, to the point where it seems grossly humorous. Tarantino wants the Bride's quest to have the grandiosity of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but the director also indulges in ironic details closer to McG's Charlie's Angels. Whenever the Bride locks eyes with her prey, the frames freeze and the music from the "Ironside" TV series can be heard.
When the Bride squares off against O-Ren's army of goons, The Crazy 88s, in the film's climactic set piece, the costumes reference Bruce Lee. Thurman wears the martial arts star's yellow tracksuit from Game of Death, while the 88s wear copies of his black facemask as Kato from "The Green Hornet."
Kill Bill unquestionably works to earn its thrills. Tarantino evokes vintage Brian DePalma with an early split-screen, showing both the Bride in her coma and Daryl Hannah, an eye-patched hit-woman, closing in for the kill. The Crazy 88s' showdown features complex fight choreography with Crouching Tiger-style duels atop handrails. Volume 1's best villain is Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), a uniformed Japanese schoolgirl who swings a wicked mace and will launch a hundred fan sites. But like The Matrix Reloaded's set pieces, the protracted final battle goes on too long.
Volume 1 has no subplots and a story that couldn't be more simple, despite withholding details (like why the Bride and Bill had their falling out). It's not slow, but we frequently feel ahead of the story, eager for Tarantino to get on with it.
Thurman is left to carry the film, and does so with unexpected force. Liu and Hannah present themselves as campy femme fatales, but Thurman makes you believe a willowy blonde can be as tough as Lee Marvin. The Bride may be a cartoony avenging angel, but Thurman plays her realistically, underscoring the character's determination with bravado, anguish and careful calculation.
Thurman's sobriety renders her Kill Bill's designated driver, because the director is drunk on his own love of movies. By the end of Volume 1, the floor may be splattered with blood and body parts, but the cutting room floor is utterly bare, as if every scene shot was kept in. Kill Bill can't be judged until Volume 2 opens in February, but it feels like Tarantino is releasing the two-disc extended director's cut DVD. His audience -- film geeks and regular film-goers alike -- would have preferred a shorter version, all in one clean shot.
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