Once Upon a Time in the East

Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill (or half of it, anyway)

I first met Quentin Tarantino at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival after a screening of Reservoir Dogs. He was sitting on a sofa in the Miramax suite talking a mile a minute, but when the publicist introduced us, he bounded to his feet. "John Powers," he yelped, and began quoting from a pan I'd written of Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon in these pages, back in 1985. Just as my head was beginning to swell, the recitation stopped, and he said, "I've waited seven years to tell you why you're wrong." Which he promptly began to do in such voluminous detail and with such breathless energy—he's the kind of talker who listens with his tongue—that I began grinning at his sheer brio.

Eleven long years have passed, and in that time Tarantino has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, become an international icon, dated Mira Sorvino, spawned hundreds of imitators and an anti-Tarantino backlash, been abused for the supposed failure of Jackie Brown, engaged in high-profile bar fights, endured cruel mockery for his acting on and off Broadway, disappeared from movie screens for six years and been declared "over" more times than rap. Through it all, one thing has remained constant—his headlong crush on cinema. This passion shines through every moment of his new movie Kill Bill, Vol. 1, which is at once an astonishing piece of filmmaking and, quite possibly, an Olympian folly. For Tarantino hasn't made just another movie. He's tried to make the Ultimate Exploitation Picture, a grind-house Ulysses. Kill Bill restlessly moves among many styles and genres in an attempt to embrace them all: spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu movies, samurai flicks, yakuza pictures, Japanese anime and (as often happens with Tarantino) the Jacobean revenge drama in all its corpuscular glory. This is the bloodiest—or at least the reddest—movie you'll see all year.

The story is basically Charlie's Angels in Hell. Uma Thurman stars as The Bride, a former killer with the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, led by the sinister Bill (David Carradine, present—so far—only as a voice). On her wedding day, the other members of the outlaw band slaughter The Bride's wedding party and leave her for dead. Tarantino has long been drawn to characters who live by precise ethical code, and boy, does his heroine have one. Rather like Jeanne Moreau's avenging newlywed in Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (her husband was shot on the church steps following the ceremony), The Bride seeks to exact a suitable revenge. She sets about exterminating everyone responsible, murdering her way through the Deadly Viper ranks until, presumably, she's finally able to kill Bill. This long vendetta carries her, in Vol. 1, from a Southwest hospital where her comatose body is rented out to yokels as a sex toy (shades of The Gimp!), to a candy-colored house in Pasadena where she clashes blades with the former Viper known as Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), and across the Pacific to Okinawa where a retired ninja (Japanese cult actor Sonny Chiba) makes her a special sword. She needs it for her face-off with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the ex-Viper queenpin of Tokyo's yakuzaland who's protected by a gang known as the Crazy 88 and a psychopathic teenager, Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), clad in one of those schoolgirl uniforms of which middle-aged Japanese pervs are so very fond.

While The Bride's path couldn't be more straightforward—she plows ahead like a shark—Tarantino's way of mapping it brims with his trademark playfulness. Presented as a series of episodic chapters with the fancy titles you'd find in a Chinese sword-fighting novel (The Blood-Spattered Bride), Kill Bill plays hopscotch with space and time, sometimes leaping ahead, sometimes back, hopping in and out of flashbacks with the glee of a flea who's discovered a new kennel. Tarantino isn't shy about laying on the flourishes—he moves neatly between color and ravishing black-and-white photography, trots out gaudy CGI effects (a jetliner practically skims the Tokyo rooftops) and takes the radical step of telling O-Ren Ishii's back story entirely in anime. Over the years, I've heard people grumble that Tarantino's storytelling is full of cheap if enjoyable gimmicks, but if that's true, why have so few filmmakers emulated his gimmickry? The short answer is, it takes enormous skill to pull such things off. It's not easy to leapfrog between different time frames or suddenly shift tones—as when, during the knife fight between Thurman and Fox, we see in the picture window behind them a yellow school bus dropping off Copperhead's little girl.

Perhaps because Tarantino became so famous so quickly, it's been easy to forget that he's an uncommonly talented filmmaker, with a knack for vivid imagery (Kill Bill takes him to new levels of flash), an impeccable ear for music selection (he wrings startling emotional depth from Nancy Sinatra's cover of "Bang-Bang") and a rare generosity toward his performers. Enthralled by his own thespian yearnings (and disappointments), this is a director who knows how to love his actors. He taps into the reservoirs of gravitas in Chiba, retools our whole image of Daryl Hannah (who revels in playing a foul-tempered, eye-patch-wearing assassin) and reveals inner resources in his lead actress that haven't been apparent since Pulp Fiction. Although the towering Thurman is usually treated as something of an eroticized force of nature, her sly, angry, heartfelt performance here brings humanity to an otherwise shallow tale that risks being all blood and no passion. She turns The Bride into an emblem of soulfulness in a sea of creeps and killers.

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