3 stars (out of 4)
There's no question that Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. What's questionable is whether it's more than that. He's been much imitated since his one-two punch of "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) and "Pulp Fiction" (1994), yet as you watch "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" (the story's second half, "Vol. 2," comes out in February), you realize that no one combines tension and release, violence and humor, dialogue and action and music and pictures the way he does.
Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender tapped ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, who provided the vibrant, contrasting textures of Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and Errol Morris' "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control," to shoot "Kill Bill," and the result may be, perversely enough, the most gorgeous B-movie ever made. Tarantino has conceived the film as his bloody valentine to all genres of "grind-house" movies - the exploitation flicks that used to play in run-down urban theaters, mostly in the '70s - yet he's approached the material like a master chef taking over a hamburger joint.
The brief, startling opening - a close-up of Uma Thurman's lead character, the Bride, after she's been brutally assaulted on her wedding day - is shot in sumptuous black and white. After a credit roll made chilling by Nancy Sinatra singing over the eerie tremelo guitars of "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," the picture suddenly turns cotton-candy bright as the Bride visits the impossibly sunny Pasadena home of her former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad colleague, Vernita Green, a.k.a. Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox).
Before the movie has ended, we have been treated to a typically jumbled chronology of events, including a yazuka (Japanese gangster) film homage rendered in lyrical anime, iconic shots of newly minted samurai swords, a massive sword battle that sends fountains of red spraying through a Japanese nightclub, and a stunning shot in which the carnage-filled nightclub's doors open to reveal a tranquil winter garden.
The soundtrack alone uses such diverse excerpts as Luis Bacalov's score for the 1972 spaghetti western "The Grand Duel" (played over the anime scene) and Quincy Jones' "Ironside" theme.
Yet being dazzled by "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" isn't the same as being moved by it. If "Jackie Brown" (1997) was Tarantino's attempt to focus on character rather than flash, "Kill Bill" is the opposite, reveling in stylized violence for the first time (as opposed to the suggested violence of his earlier films).
Tarantino is spare in revealing much about his lead character; even her actual name is bleeped out repeatedly by what's made to sound like malfunctioning sound equipment. All he thinks we need to know is that the Bride used to be a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (snake nickname: Black Mamba), that she was somehow intimately involved with ringleader Bill (David Carradine), and that the group attacked her on her wedding day, killing the never-identified groom and wedding guests and leaving her in a four-year coma.
When she awakens, the Bride writes out a list of her five betrayers and sets out to cross them off one by one, ending with Bill. So the question is never what she's going to do but rather how.
The answer is that Tarantino mounts each of her revenge missions in a different exploitation-film genre. The knives, fists and kicks showdown with Green harks back to Blaxploitation films, while the extended battle with Tokyo crime boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and her sword-wielding underlings takes the form of a bloody samurai epic. "Vol. 2" promises to include more blatant nods to spaghetti westerns, kung fu films and Italian gialos (slasher films).
Thurman holds everything together with a fierce performance delivered without a trace of irony. Her lanky body is built for high kicks, and she shows a feline grace in her swordplay. Her face reflects such grit, vengefulness and pain that Tarantino doesn't feel the need to fill in too many blanks. (Perhaps the bravest part of her performance is letting Tarantino shoot long close-ups of her toes. Thurman is a uniquely beautiful woman, but toes are toes, and Tarantino captures them in all of their funkiness.)
Still, you never forget that "Kill Bill" is an exercise in genre-sampling. Your awareness of Tarantino's cleverness eclipses your engagement with the Bride.
And cleverness does not always equal wit. The dialogue is more sparse than in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," but when a character delivers a trademark Tarantino rant, such as O-Ren's speech to potentially traitorous underlings, its use of profanity as exclamation points comes across as more lazy than funny. Meanwhile, the movie's one playful exchange, in which the Bride and master swordmaker Hattori Hanzo (Japanese martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba) discuss her rudimentary Japanese while he bawls out an assistant for not bringing her tea, feels strained.
Then there's the hospital-room scene in which the just-awakened Bride must deal with a pair of lecherous orderlies. Tarantino has written the scene as a crude joke, but it's too horrific and distasteful to be funny, particularly given that it follows the Bride's raw, heartbreaking cry after she has regained consciousness and memories.
Tarantino relishes jerking viewers this way and that, but too often "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" seems at odds with itself. The filmmaker's desire to muddy up genres is admirable, but by having Vernita's daughter walk in on the Bride's death match with her mother, he's making you ponder the whole notion of whether watching violence truly can be fun.
That's a relevant, provocative question, particularly coming from Tarantino. But when it's posed in a movie built around your appreciation of high-energy, expertly choreographed fight scenes, it's also irksome. We're supposed to be exhilarated as the Bride sends limbs flying and blood spraying in the climactic nightclub battle - and her face-off with the schoolgirl-outfitted, spiky-ball-swinging Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is highlight-reel worthy - but our enjoyment is tempered in a way that it wasn't in "Pulp Fiction," which more clearly delineated when you should feel pain or pleasure.
I consider this movie's star rating a placeholder, because half films don't usually merit full reviews. Unlike the "Matrix" or "Lord of the Rings" movies, "Kill Bill" was conceived as a single film; yes, "Vol. 1" ends at a point when you're willing to take a break, but that's what intermissions used to be for. When a story revolves around crossing off five names from a hit list, and the lead character gets to only two of them, you can't credibly say "The End."
As "Vol. 1" closes, Tarantino appears on his way to making a more nuanced statement about the nature of revenge. In a final voiceover, Chiba's Hattori Hanzo says revenge is not a straight line but "a forest." That forest will become apparent in "Vol. 2." For now we can judge only some colorful trees.
I'm very eager to see how Tarantino resolves the issues he has introduced in "Vol. 1." He's made the case that he has retained his powerful filmmaking gifts. He still must prove that it takes a master chef to make a tastier burger.
"Kill Bill, Vol. 1"
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; photographed by Robert Richardson; edited by Sally Menke; production designed by Yohei Tanada, David Wasco; music by The RZA; produced by Lawrence Bender. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Oct. 10. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (strong bloody violence, language, some sexual content).
The Bride - Uma Thurman
Bill - David Carradine
O-Ren Ishii - Lucy Liu
Elle Driver - Daryl Hannah
Vernita Green - Vivica A. Fox
Budd - Michael Madsen
Hattori Hanzo - Sonny Chiba