Tarantino's `Bill' slays

October 10, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Bloody exhilarating.

That's Kill Bll - Vol. 1, Quentin Tarantino's spirited tribute to the samurai films of his youth. They're the films responsible for birthing in Tarantino the passion that would turn Hollywood on its ear - has any film had more of an impact in the last 10 years than Pulp Fiction? - and Kill Bill is his way of saying thanks. Everywhere, samurai fans should be smiling.

Let's get something out of the way immediately. Yes, Kill Bill - Vol. 1 is a bloodbath, with practically every scene featuring gallons of the (fake) stuff spewing forth in every possible direction (and there's no reason to believe Vol. 2, slated for a February release, will be any different). So yeah, there's plenty of onscreen violence, but it would be hard to imagine more cartoonish carnage. This is a movie that takes its genre seriously, but not itself.

It's also a film geek's fantasy, a movie that revels in off-handed references that will fly over the head of just about everybody else. In fact, the very first image to appear on the screen is an announcement that the movie was shot in Shaw-vision, a reference to the Shaw Brothers, producers of the Hong Kong martial arts films that so enthralled Tarantino back in his video-store-clerk days.

Here's betting that's information you didn't have previously, and if you plan on catching all the references Tarantino has crammed into Kill Bill, that one tidbit is barely the beginning. Lines of dialogue, characters' names, actors, cinematic styles, costumes - almost everything in the film relates back to something that came before (including Tarantino's earlier films).

But the best thing about Kill Bill is that none of the background is a prerequisite for enjoying the film. It's a thrill ride from beginning to end, escapist entertainment of the first order, made by a guy who wears his love of movies on his sleeve.

The movie opens on the barely recognizable face of Uma Thurman, ghastly pale (even for Uma) and caked with blood. Seems there's just been a massacre in a tiny Texas border town, of a bridal party practicing for the big event. That includes the would-be bride (Thurman), a skilled, sword-wielding assassin once known as Black Mamba, but henceforth better known as The Bride.

Death, it seems, is not yet ready to claim her. For the rest of the film, in scenes that jump from one point in time to another, we watch as she is hunted down by her erstwhile compatriots on the much-feared Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), recovers from the near-fatal attack (after months in a coma), escapes from the hospital, tracks down her attackers and all the while plans for her ultimate revenge on the group's leader (and her former lover), Bill.

Kill Bill - Vol. 1 pits The Bride against two of her former friends. Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) is accosted at her home, and the two engage in a balletic knifefight interrupted briefly by her young daughter's return from school; samurai assassins, it seems, live by a strict code of honor, and killing one's foe in front of her child is simply not done.

The second object of The Bride's revenge is O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), boss of the Japanese mob, or Yakuza, and much of Kill Bill chronicles her as both character and target. A chilling anime (Japanese animation) sequence explains how O-Ren became the killer she is, and then there's a sort-of Yakuza board meeting where she takes control of the group and graphically explains what will happen to anyone who questions her qualifications (best advice: Don't).

All the while, she's being stalked by The Bride, ever mindful of the film's opening credo: "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Tarantino, back making films after a six-year hiatus, is clearly having more fun than a human being should be allowed; he's peppered Kill Bill with operatic black humor and every cheesy samurai cliche imaginable, even including some masters of the genre in his cast. And there's nary an aspect of Japanese popular culture that isn't touched on somehow, including their fondness for young women in schoolgirl uniforms - O-Ren's bodyguard, the chain-wielding Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), dresses like a prep-school student. Heck, there are even snippets of the old Green Hornet TV show theme on the soundtrack.

Even better, Tarantino brings it all to the screen with an almost unquenchable energy; he rarely stops throwing things at the viewer (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively), but is smart enough to vary his delivery enough that the pace never grows wearying. And Thurman proves a real bonus, bringing weight and just the right amount of sardonic humor to her character. The Bride may be something of a cipher - we don't learn much about her until Part 2 - but Thurman manages to make the character's mystery one of her more alluring traits.

Kill Bill - Vol. 1 is bravura filmmaking at its most brave. Tarantino's love of the art form goes beyond palpable; it practically enters your bloodstream.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1

Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Rated R (strong bloody violence, language and some sexual content)

Released by Miramax Films

Time 95 minutes

Sun Score ****

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