It's almost like deja vu. In 1994, a little big film called Pulp Fiction from then little-known writer/director/genius Quentin Tarantino, stormed onto the scene at the Cannes Film Festival. It was considered a horrible year for the festival, and Pulp Fiction screened the day before the festival was over, taking it by storm, winning the Palm D'Or, or the American equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar. And when it hit the theaters in America in early October, it exploded onto the scene, earning a Best Picture nomination (although it lost to Forrest Gump), and winning Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino and collaborator Roger Avary. Cut to the present, where the Cannes festival was widely considered as the worst in festival history, which probably would have changed if Tarantino's new film Kill Bill: Volume 1 was ready. Pulp Fiction was released in early October, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was released in early October. Prophetic? Possibly, but if it is deja vu, I hope that the only thing that changes is that Kill Bill: Volume 1 wins more Oscars because this is one hell of a movie, and the best so far this year.
This movie opens wonderfully, with a black-and-white shot, reminiscent of the rich B&W photography in Pi, of The Bride (Thurman, who's real character name is never revealed, bleeping it out like she's a suspect from a Cops episode) lying in pain, bleeding, pregnant listening to her former boss, Bill (Carradine) try to console her before shooting her in the head right after she reveals the baby she's carrying is his. As Keanu would say, "Whoa." But she doesn't die, lying in a coma for four years and when she wakes up, take a wild guess what she wants to do? Yep, she wants to kill bill, and the other assassins she used to work with.If you've seen Tarantino's films, you know he loves to toy with structure, and he does so here, cutting between the past and present with ease, giving us a hint of background then bringing us back to the present. I have heard from people who aren't fans of his zig-zag structure that it isn't satisfying and confusing. But I think this style works better here, since the movie was split in two, because it adds anticipation, knowing you're going to find out what you don't know from the first movie in the second, well, volume. True, it would have been nice to see the whole thing at once, but I absolutely loved how it ended, and it justified the split for me. I really like how he makes the underlying story fairly simple (revenge) but complicates it by throwing the standard structure off.
The acting here is top-notch, with Tarantino using some regular favorites, and, as he usually does, plucking a once-famous actor from obscurity. In Pulp Fiction it was John Travolta, in Jackie Brown it was Robert Forster. In this movie, it's Daryl Hannah, and she turns in a wonderful performance as Elle Driver, or codename California Mountain Snake, one of Bill's killers who sports a different eyepatch for each occasion, including a hilarious part where she goes under the guise of a nurse and wears a white eyepatch with a red cross to go with her outfit. Uma Thurman is great as The Bride, a vicious vixen who believes in revenge, but does have a few shreds of decency, refusing to kill one of her former associates in front of her daughter. It's funny how she rationalizes it, but still makes sure her adversary knows that revenge will be taken, one way or another. Lucy Liu is pretty good as O-Ren Ishii, another one of Bill's crew, Hong Kong legend Sonny Chiba is wonderful as Hanzo Hattari, a retired sword-maker and Chiaki Kuriyama turns in the best of the many smaller performances as Go Go, a playful-yet-deadly teen who is the bodyguard for O-Ren.
Tarantino's obscure film references, and film knowledge, are legendary. And, although I haven't seen or even heard of some of the films he talks about in interviews, I did catch a couple of references to films he pays homage to here. Look for subtle acknowledgements to Bruce Lee, the Star Wars trilogy, The Green Hornet and Blind Fury, a great 80s action flick, which represents the one obscure reference that I picked up on. And I could be mistaken, but I could have swore that in a scene in Tokyo there was a billboard that featured the Buddy Christ from Kevin Smith's wonderful film Dogma. I'm sure there are a zillion references to Hong Kong action flicks, but I'm not that familiar with them.
The action scenes and fight scenes are out of this world, choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, the genius behind the great fight scenes in The Matrix and many many other movies. What I liked the most about these scenes is how Tarantino mocks, while at the same time honors the Hong Kong action genre. He mocks it by having, literally, explosions of blood when people are stabbed with samurai swords, which looks a Saturday Night Live skit gone way over the top. These parts are just funny, because we know he's poking fun at it. But he honors the genre with some of the best fight scenes I've seen in quite some time, using incredibly inventive camera angles and switching from color to black and white.
It's also worth noting that the musical score is simply brilliant, adding the tension and suspense that a wonderful score should. The score was handled by The RZA, a member of rap's Wu-Tang Clan, who also did the score for the wonderful indie flick Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. I think Eminem won't be the only rapper with an Oscar, come February 28, because The RZA's music is just great.
Tarantino's writing and direction are marvelous, but don't expect a lot of his edgy dialogue that was prevalent in his first three films. There is one part towards the beginning with The Bride and Vernita Green, played nicely by Vivica A. Fox, where the dialogue is similar to his previous work, but that's about all you get of this kind of dialogue, which I liked because he wanted to make sure it was a samurai/revenge flick and not Pulp Fiction meets Enter the Dragon, which with most of these characters wouldn't seem natural. He still has his own flair for humor and drama and he has the best ending of all of his films here. It's a shocker and it almost guarantees you'll come back for Volume 2 in February.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a movie about revenge, and how far some people will go to exact it. Why, Mr. Tarantino, have you waited so long to come back to work? But, I must say, in a year such as this where nothing stands out, your timing couldn't have been better. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is the real deal, folks. It's bold and daring, funny and gory and a reminder that you don't always have to follow the rules of filmmaking if you know how to break them as brilliantly as Tarantino does.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is out October 10, 2003.