In his fourth film, Quentin Tarantino veered away from arthouse crime thrillers to take a shot at making a blood-soaked grindhouse martial arts revenge movie. And he once again succeeded at taking seedy cult pop culture influences and twisting them into a vibrant, gory and somewhat sadistic piece of smart, savvy cinema.
“Kill Bill” — which is broken into two parts — follows The Bride (Uma Thurman), who was left for dead by her former gang of assassins at her wedding rehearsal. Although Bill, the leader, shoots The Bride in the head as she tells him she’s carrying his baby, she survives, waking up from a coma almost a half-decade later. The overarching plot from there is pretty straightforward: she’s going to track down all five of her former associates who were responsible, and she’s going to kill them, one by one. For as purposefully absurd as the magnetic action scenes can be, the way the backstories of the characters are built adds a sense of ambiguity and humanity, exploring the darkness and desires that turned these people into who they’ve become. And since the film is told in vignettes, with each name on The Bride’s kill list getting a short story, that’s how I’m going to structure this article (and the one for “Volume 2”), revisiting the best moments from each.
The Bride locates Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), an expert in knife combat, living in the suburbs, under an alias. After a ring of the doorbell, a hand-to-hand fight breaks out almost instantly, destroying the entire living room. Shortly after, as the two are squaring off, each with a knife in hand, a school bus rolls into the background of the frame — offloading Green’s four-year-old daughter. It’s quintessential Tarantino — aesthetically stylish, brutally revealing, darkly funny. And so is the scene that follows. The four-year-old walks in, confused. And when the grown-ups lie, you get the sense she knows more than they think. Later, when Green takes a surprise shot at The Bride from a gun hidden in a cereal box, she misses and ends up dying from the countering knife throw. The daughter appears in the doorway, having witnessed the whole thing, and The Bride turns to her, half apologizing, letting her know that if she’s still upset when she gets older, she’s entitled to her own chance at revenge. Violence is cyclical.
The story of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) elevates “Kill Bill: Volume 1” from enjoyable to special. Through an anime backstory recap, we find out Ishii watched her parents die at the hands of a Yakuza boss at the age of 9. Two years later, at 11, she gets her revenge, stabbing him after seducing him — it turns out he’s a pedophile. By 20, Ishii is an international assassin. At the time of the Bride’s revenge plot, she’s the head of the Yakuza. When an underboss challenges her racial makeup, she runs across a table, beheads him, and says she welcomes constructive criticism, but not bigotry. There’s an aspect of respectability and likability that makes her character hard to hate entirely. Instead of drawing a line between good and evil, Ishii lives in a grey area where morality is muddled.
Ishii also has her own personal guard, the 17-year-old combat wunderkind Gogo Yubari and the army of ninjas, The Crazy 88. The Bride’s fight against O-Ren Ishii and her crew in a nightclub goes down like a multi-layered level in a video game. First, The Bride fights a few barely-functional goons who she slices up quickly. Then, Gogo comes out swinging a meteor hammer, establishing herself as the superior fighter, making The Bride have to find a weakness, which is more or less arrogance. That’s followed by the Crazy 88 storming in all at once, turning the club into a makeshift graveyard. And, finally, a boss fight with Ishii. It’s a lot of kung-fu movie madness, but the rhythm and tone in which it unravels are as interesting as they are bat-shit crazy. And it has a dimension to it reminiscent of the “Metal Gear Solid” video games, where one has to conquer A to unlock B, but the entire vibe changes between the two points. When The Bride kills all the underlings, she walks outside to a peaceful garden to face Ishii. It’s quiet, snowing and beautiful — utterly different from inside. When The Bride slices off Ishii’s head, she sends a warning to Bill. We end up finding out that The Bride’s daughter — who she was pregnant with during the betrayal — is still alive.
Two dead. Three to go.