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Our review of Kill Bill: Volume 1, published April 19th, 2004, is also available.
Here comes the bride.
The fourth film by Quentin Tarantino arrives on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
A former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, The Bride (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction) was once the world's deadliest female killer. Then she became pregnant by her boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine, Kung Fu), quit the business, disappeared into the dusty wastelands of Texas, and decided to marry a regular guy and set up a normal life for her child.
Unfortunately for The Bride, Bill and four other members of the DVAS track her to a little wedding chapel in El Paso. There they murder the minister, his wife, and the entire wedding party. Bill puts a bullet in The Bride's skull. Too bad it doesn't kill her. After waking from a four-year coma to discover that her baby is dead, The Bride sets her mind on revenge.
On her way to Osaka to obtain a sword from Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, The Shogun's Samurai), Japan's finest swordsmith, she composes her Death List Five: O-Ren Ishii (a.k.a. Coppermouth) (Lucy Liu, Charlie's Angels), Vernita Green (a.k.a. Copperhead) (Vivica A. Fox, Independence Day), Budd (a.k.a. Sidewinder) (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs), Elle Driver (a.k.a. California Mountain Snake) (Daryl Hannah, Blade Runner), and Bill (a.k.a. Snake Charmer). They will pay.
Kill Bill is an exhilarating disappointment—a stunning technical achievement filled to the brim with hipster style, visual eye candy, and rocking action that marks a point of artistic regression for Quentin Tarantino. It's a case of the director taking one step forward and two steps back. None of this was clear to me at the time the movie came out. It took watching Tarantino's next film, Death Proof, for me to grasp the extent to which Kill Bill is a move in the wrong direction. Pulp Fiction remains the director's most influential and celebrated film, but Jackie Brown (which falls between Fiction and Kill Bill) is arguably his best (and my favorite). While not as groundbreaking as Pulp Fiction, it is more mature and less self-obsessed. It also demonstrates Tarantino's ability to adapt the work of another strong storyteller (it's based on Elmore Leonard's novel, Rum Punch) while maintaining his own style and identity. When it first hit theaters it looked like a bridge from the director's early work to a new, mature style. That wasn't to be.
Kill Bill marks a return to the temporally fragmented, style-on-steroids mode of Pulp Fiction. It's more visually assured than the earlier film, but suffers from the sense that Tarantino is beating a horse that may not quite be dead but sure as shoot smells funny. Pulp Fiction's precocious creativity, earnest love of B-movies, and youthful energy is replaced by gushing, ham-handed homage to everything from samurai flicks to Hong Kong actioners to spaghetti westerns. Instead of being fresh and inventive, it has a been-here-seen-this vibe about it. Throughout Kill Bill Tarantino toes the line of self-parody (consider the comical abundance of close-ups of women's bare feet). This seemed like a minor flaw at the time the movie played in theaters, but viewed again in the context of Death Proof's unabashed wallowing in every imaginable Tarantino cliché, it reads as a deeper, more fundamental flaw: Tarantino's self-reflexive regurgitation of his own style is beginning to look like a career trajectory.
Having basically savaged Kill Bill: Volume 1 up to this point, let me switch gears and talk about how much I dig it as a guilty pleasure. Tarantino's fracturing of narrative time may be old hat by now, but it still makes for a lively and entertaining viewing experience. Something about offering the punchline of a joke before its setup never becomes entirely stale for me. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is loaded with those sorts of narrative flourishes. It starts at the beginning, jumps to the end (Vernita Green is number two on the Bride's "Death List Five"), then flashes back to the middle, back again to before the beginning, and then ends with the Bride's showdown with the first person on her list, O-Ren Ishii. To Tarantino's credit, all of this jumping around in narrative time is perfectly coherent. And it provides opportunities for some truly enjoyable surprises and humor (for example, we see the Bride in her gaudy "Pussy Wagon" pickup truck before we witness the satisfying revenge scenario by which it comes into her possession).
Whatever its faults, Kill Bill is technically impressive. Tarantino uses the 2.35:1 frame with artful precision, offering us beautiful tableaus and precise, intentional camera moves. And his direction of action is spectacular. Rather than turn the movie's many action set pieces over to a second unit director experienced in choreographing and filming fight sequences, Tarantino directed it all himself—and he did a fine job. The Bride's throw-down with Vernita Green in the former killer's suburban bungalow is a perfect blend of brutal high-energy violence and cheeky wit (also, the domestic setting is a clever nod to the way the story comes to a close in Volume 2). And our heroine's swordfight against the O-Ren Ishii's personal army, the Crazy 88s, in Tokyo's House of Blue Leaves is a masterpiece of mayhem that manages to be bloody, kinetic, inventive, and fresh over a running time that is absurdly distended for an action sequence. Critics (wrongly) complained that Kill Bill: Volume 1 is all violence and no plot, but damned if Tarantino doesn't deliver the smack-downs with a maximum of rip-roaring cartoon glee. When the Bride goes ballistic, the movie is just plain fun to watch.
This Blu-ray release of Kill Bill: Volume 1 provides a modest image and sound upgrade over the original DVD. Improvements in image depth, clarity, and detail are subtle. They'll be most noticeable to those with large displays. Detail isn't razor sharp, but the transfer does look an awful lot like celluloid. Color saturation is what really separates this high definition release from its standard def predecessor. From the early shots of Vernita Green's vividly green little bungalow, it's obvious that Kill Bill: Volume 1 on Blu-ray will tickle the old rods and cones.
The uncompressed audio is more dynamic than the Dolby 5.1 audio on the SD DVD. Dialogue is always crisp. The movie's many effects utilize the entire soundstage and provide plenty of punch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What a drag that the Blu-ray edition of Kill Bill: Volume 1 has the same lame batch of extras that appeared on the nearly barebones DVD. I'm less enthusiastic than some fans about a Whole Bloody Affair release that would reintegrate the two volumes of Kill Bill into a single epic movie (the stark stylistic differences between the two volumes is one of the duology's strong points), but a deluxe Blu-ray set with the individual volumes plus the epic re-edit would have been something to get excited about. Heck, even a handful of high definition supplemental content exclusive to the Blu-ray would have been nice.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a competent if uninspired Blu-ray release. A modest audio-video upgrade over the SD DVD, no new extras, and the cold, hard truth that the movie appears to represent the beginning of a downward spiral for Tarantino (I hope the director's future films prove me wrong), make this disc hard to recommend to anyone but true believers.
Two down, three to go.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 1
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