Nearly a decade after Pulp Fiction and a full five years after his last film, Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino, onetime wunderkind of American movies, has finally returned to the big screen. The result is Kill Bill Vol. 1, a bare-(knuckle)-plotted revenge epic, a movie so massive it had to be split in two, with Vol. 2 due next spring.
Pulp Fiction star Uma Thurman returns to Tarantinoland as the Bride, nine-months pregnant on her wedding day, shot in the head and left for dead, the rest of the wedding party a lifeless pile of bloody bodies around her. The culprits responsible for this massacre are the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), a band of comely assassins (Vivica Fox, Darryl Hannah, and Lucy Liu) with a rough-looking male colleague (Michael Madsen) and a mysterious Charlie-like leader (David Carradine).
The Bride survives the attack and awakens from a coma four years later, then sets out on a journey to seek revenge from her attackers, one by one. That's the movie, and it's tempting to read it meta-style, with Tarantino awaking from his own artistic coma to extract a pound of flesh from his cinematic imitators.
Ever the excitable video hound, Tarantino indulges another genre homage with Kill Bill. What Reservoir Dogs was to the heist film and Jackie Brown was to blaxploitation (Pulp Fiction was a genre homage of sorts too, but it contained multitudes), Kill Bill is to the chop-socky and grindhouse fare Tarantino soaked up as a child. But in some ways, Kill Bill is a regression. Where the subtle, underappreciated Jackie Brown witnessed Tarantino finding a way to deploy his movie-mad, reference-heavy style to the service of dealing with real people and real emotions, Kill Bill is a return to the relatively cold mechanics of Reservoir Dogs.
Instead of pushing in any new directions that Jackie Brown may have hinted at, Tarantino instead serves up a dish of cinematic comfort food. There is an air of familiarity here, with Kill Bill something of a Tarantino greatest-hits package: The DiVAS are surely an intentional reference to Pulp's fictional Fox Force Five; the unearthing of Kung Fu star Carradine (who makes only a shadowy appearance in Vol. 1 as Bill) is a reclamation project on a par with Tarantino's previous rescues of John Travolta and Pam Grier; a hospital worker and his buddy who take sexual advantage of comatose women rhyme with the pawnshop sleazebags in Pulp Fiction and receive a similar comeuppance; and then there's the matter of Uma Thurman's feet, which got Tony Rocky Horror thrown from a high-rise in Pulp Fiction and now get loving, lingering close-ups (which makes one wonder just which kind of pulp paperbacks Tarantino gets his kicks from).
Kill Bill also exhibits the same love of structure that you see in Tarantino's other movies, this "volume" divided into "chapters." The narrative here is chopped up and rearranged à la Pulp Fiction, and though it's easy to follow and has the same utility in teasing out information (setting up an odd fact -- such as Thurman's character driving a yellow truck emblazoned with the logo "Pussy Wagon" -- only later to reveal its origin), the structure of Kill Bill isn't quite as elegant, failing to deliver the almost musical satisfaction that you get from Pulp Fiction.
But there is one key element of the Tarantino style that takes a hit: Tarantino's pop-culture-inflected dialogue, for all the sorry imitators it inspired, may be his greatest asset (remember: the character Tony Rocky Horror never actually appears in Pulp Fiction but nearly a decade later the name still springs immediately to mind), and the talk pours out of his earlier movies with a snap and verve that Kill Bill lacks. In Kill Bill, those centerpiece conversations are replaced by fight scenes, and something is definitely lost in the trade-off.
Fans may miss that glorious chatter, but the action sequences in Kill Bill convey what a gifted and witty technician Tarantino remains. One welcome surprise is "Chapter III -- The Origin of O-Ren Ishii," an extremely effective anime sequence that also serves as a transition into the film's final stretch, a revenge trip to kill Liu's O-Ren, who is currently head of the Japanese underworld, where she is backed by a pretty, insolent young bodyguard in Catholic-schoolgirl get-up and a band of thugs (who wear masks à la the Green Hornet's sidekick Cato) called the Crazy 88s. This culminates in an insane battle scene at a club called the House of Blue Leaves, where all-girl Japanese garage-rock band the 5, 6, 7, 8s kick out the jams as the body count builds.
While this epic, climactic battle will get more attention, an earlier conflict between Thurman and Vivica Fox in a sun-dappled suburban California kitchen (this could be the same house Tarantino's own Pulp Fiction character inhabited in that film) may be a truer testament to the director's skills. The scene's unexpected burst of violence and a denouement that moves swiftly from comic shock to trembling disquiet is a compact testament to Tarantino's editing, timing, sound design, and framing. And the same whiplash transition from humor to sadness comes through when the Bride awakens from her coma and first reaches up to check her gunshot wound and finds a steel plate (you can hear the comic ping as she taps her forehead) and then reaches down to her womb, where she collapses in sobs.
Kill Bill confirms Tarantino as the perpetual poster boy for Peter Pan syndrome, a return to the toy room after Jackie Brown's stab at maturity. I suspected as much and thought I'd be disappointed by it. But Kill Bill is also a reminder of how talented a filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is. It's good to have him back. -- Chris Herrington