Monday, October 13, 2003

Kill Bill—Vol. 1

By Elise Nakhnikian

Director Quentin Tarentino’s kung fu cliffhanger opens with white letters on a black screen: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The shopworn phrase hangs there for a beat. Then it’s redeemed by the attribution: “Old Klingon proverb.”

A few people are still giggling when the panting begins, loud and desperate. The credit sequence soon gives way to black and white footage of Uma Thurman’s battered face. She’s the one panting, and she looks panicked as two feet in pointy-toed cowboy boots stride toward her. We’re less than two minutes into the movie, and we’re already no place but Tarantino’s world.

Tarantino works by rummaging through the detritus of late 20th century, pulling out ideas here and there, adding a little connective tissue, and stitching it all together into a movie. You might think his pop-culture pastiches would feel like awkward patch jobs, but each one’s an original, as improbably light on its feet as Peter Boyle’s monster in Young Frankenstein.

Maybe that’s because Tarantino’s tongue is nowhere near his cheek. He genuinely adores the movie stars, genres, TV shows, and other pop cultural markers he resurrects in the movies he writes and directs. The songs on his soundtracks are usually handpicked personal favorites. He writes roles for his favorite actors — many of whom he has worshipped for years — just for the joy of working with them, and he doesn’t care if everyone else sneers at one of his favorites. In fact, he often makes the rest of us see what he loves about a performer, famously reviving John Travolta’s career with Pulp Fiction and briefly resurrecting Pam Grier’s with Jackie Brown.

Not all of Tarantino’s darlings are down on their luck. He wrote the starring role in Kill Bill for Thurman, who he has called “my actress.” A female version of the terse Clint Eastwood part in Sergio Leone’s westerns, the character is unlike anything else the actress has played before, but Thurman’s impressive athleticism and intensity justifies the director’s faith in her.

Like Eastwood’s in Leone’s movies, Thurman’s character is nameless, though the script calls her The Bride. She got the nickname when she was left for dead on her wedding day by The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad after they had murdered her groom and the rest of the wedding party. Four years after the massacre, she wakes up from a coma and sets out to kill every member of the squad. She gets to two of them in Vol. 1 but leaves three more — including Bill, the group’s leader — for the sequel. Along the way, she inflicts a lot of what the Army calls collateral damage.

It’s not much of a plot, and some people will be turned off by the stylized but copious violence. But for those who are not, the movie is exhilarating.

Like the syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart that revived Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s storytelling wakes up the senses. Even the soundtrack commands your attention: A pistol fired in the opening sequence goes off with a tremendous BANG. Constant zigzags through time and space as we learn the main characters’ back stories keep things interesting, as do frequent switches between color, black and white, and sepia; silhouette shots; and other attention-getting visuals.

Tarantino says his movies usually take place in two worlds. “One of them is the ‘Quentin Universe’ of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown — it’s heightened but more or less realistic,” he says in the press kit. “The other is the Movie World. When characters in the Quentin Universe go to the movies, the stuff they see takes place in the Movie World. Kill Bill is the first film I’ve made that takes place in the Movie World.”

The director spent his childhood watching kung fu movies at the theater and a ninja detective series on TV, and he steeped himself in Hong Kong martial arts movies and Japanese samurai and anime movies for a year before making Kill Bill. The movie features several Asian cinema stars and some equally famous behind-the-camera talent: The climactic fight scene was staged by the Chinese martial arts expert and direct who choreographed the gravity-defying action scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. The good news is, those references undoubtedly heighten the enjoyment of Tarantino and his fellow ninja buffs. The better news is, they don’t get in the way for the rest of us.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of anime to appreciate the emotionally powerful segment done in that style by one of Japan’s leading animation studios. And you don’t have to know the yellow jump suit Thurman wears for much of the movie is an exact replica of a suit Bruce Lee wore in Game of Death to appreciate the duel she fights in a snow-covered courtyard while wearing it.

In that scene, two implacable women warriors clash in an idyllic setting, in a fight that culminates in a highly stylized death. It’s memorable stuff, and you’ll only find it in Quentin Tarentino’s Movie World.

My review of Vol. 2

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