Published in the Austin American-Statesman
The "fourth film by Quentin Tarantino," for those who haven't seen a glossy magazine in a while, is a blood-splattered revenge flick in which a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, known only as The Bride, sets out to destroy the five people who left her and her groom-to-be for dead. Due either to the amount of killing the Bride has to do or the amount of money Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein would like to make, the film has been split into two chapters, the second of which will appear in a few months.
In the tsunami of printed words, some derisive and some delirious, that greet "Kill Bill," it will inevitably appear that many writers knew their opinions before seeing the film: This one has a grudge against Miramax's reasons for chopping a saga into two chunks; that one is such a kung-fu junkie that any big-budget homage gets an automatic thumbs up; another just can't separate Quentin Tarantino's filterless billow of offscreen egomania from his work.
Readers who simply want to tally critical opinion before judging for themselves can look at the four stars accompanying this review and move on. Innocent bystanders wondering what to see this weekend should do some soul-searching about cinematic violence, and buy a ticket only if they want to see one of the bloodiest Hollywood productions ever. Those interested in debating the film's merits, though, should consider a few points:
Those who think Tarantino's main gift to the cinema is cute banter about Madonna and footrubs should head to the video store instead of the multiplex tonight. The dialogue in "Kill Bill" creaks with the stiff formality of a samurai honor code. Phraseology like "it was not my intention" and "for that I am sorry" doesn't trip off the tongue like tales of "Le Big Mac," but it does clue viewers in to the foreign motives and mores at work here; this is a world in which a cold-blooded villain will refuse to slay an enemy who can't fight back, and a revenge-minded assassin will stop mid-fight rather than murder an opponent in front her young daughter.
More than entertaining dialogue, Tarantino's real defining virtue is his ability to take decades' worth of, let's say, films with hidden charms (that's so much nicer than "lousy movies with exciting trailers") and understand what he enjoys about them, then build that essence into something the rest of us can appreciate. That's how he turned Pam Grier into an actress for "Jackie Brown," and it's why there's so little exposition in "Kill Bill Volume One": Payback is the payoff in revenge movies, and Tarantino feels that -- once we're shown what Bill's crew did to the Bride -- we need no more convincing about her reasons for slaying them one-by-one.
In fact, the film's one nearly disposable sequence -- a credulity-testing Brian De Palma homage that, like much De Palma, is a sexualized tease -- is the one that exists solely for information's sake, to tell us something about Bill that we can learn nowhere else in the plot. If we saw Volumes One and Two together, maybe we wouldn't need this bit of awkward character development; but whatever the motives for bisecting this tale, Volume One's epic climax is a draining experience, and it's hard to see how Tarantino could have gone on from there without subsequent fight scenes suffering from diminishing returns.
While the filmmaker's earlier work fractures chronology in provocative ways, this one goes farther -- jumping around in tone as well as time, in a nod to the many disparate styles that inspire it. With the help of a deft soundtrack by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, he can turn on a dime from a Spaghetti Western standoff to Blaxploitation mayhem. In the film's single low-key interlude, he slides gracefully from comic relief into a samurai Hallmark Moment where a proud swordmaker, haloed in soft white light, displays his most perfect instruments of death.
Those instruments of death are indeed entrancing here. The director relishes the long, high whine made by an unsheathed sword and the gleam from its polished blade. He also delights in less obviously beautiful sensual experiences: the deliberately artificial geyser of blood spurting from a freshly decapitated torso, the breakdance-like rolling roundabout with which the Bride attacks a dozen men, the prop-model Tokyo through which her plane descends.
Many of these pleasures are derived from other films, which strikes some critics as evidence of Tarantino's poverty of imagination. But dressing Thurman in Bruce Lee's yellow track suit and naming reservoir dogs after the criminals in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" is a far cry from recording a song that steals someone else's melody. Quentin Tarantino didn't get where he is by taking others' ideas and adding nothing to them. Instead, the world's biggest movie geek progressed beyond the "wasn't it cool when..." phase and learned how to make others' ideas better than most of them ever were in the first place.