Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino’s unabashed love letter to kung-fu movies, and by extension Asian exploitation cinema in general. Although it stands as his most stylized movie to date – which is quite a feat – and sports nearly innumerable artistic flourishes, Vol. 1 seems to highlight Tarantino the cinephile far more than Tarantino the artist. Not that the movie necessarily displays his eclectic and vast knowledge of film history more than the rest, but rather it concentrates all of its ambition on being a pure, electrifying cinematic experience.
I’d argue that it succeeds, with the last hour or so exhibiting some of the most exuberant filmmaking I’ve ever seen. It’s a simple revenge story, told via Tarantino’s trademark nonlinear, chapter-based style, centered around The Bride (an Oscar-worthy Uma Thurman), a former member of The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. It opens on Thurman’s bloodied, frantic face. Immediately after we in the audience learn that she is pregnant, she is shot in the head by the titular Bill, sending her into a 4-year coma. Tarantino doesn’t spend much time piling on information to emotionally involve the audience – Thurman achieves it and then some in a single take. As The Bride wakes up from her coma the camera lingers at a distance as she realizes what has happened, realizes her baby is gone, and realizes just how long she has been unconscious. It is one of the biggest, most genuine, most earned emotional gut punches in Tarantino’s entire oeuvre.
Aside from that moment the first two chapters are not terribly powerful, but once The Bride sets her sights on her first target, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Kill Bill Vol. 1 becomes both nonstop whirlwind of cinematic bravura and a relentless, infectious good time. Its lone kernel of substance arrives in Chapter 3, a stunning-but-gruesome animated sequence chronicling the origins of O-Ren. Although ostensibly a minor character, the amount of screen time dedicated to Ishii is key, effectively completing this idea of a never ending cycle of revenge that all of Kill Bill’s characters are trapped in (to say anymore would reveal spoilers).
Ultimately, though, the last hour is just an unstoppable display of gripping style. Although undeniably indulgent, the enthusiastic sincerity, which is so apparent, lends the film a sort of integrity that exonerates it from claims of pretentiousness. It is pure, visceral, powerful cinema (and also a gleeful good time). It highlights the best of “Tarantino the DJ Director” both in its spontaneous swapping of musical cues and the enthralling rhythm of the ebb-and-flow of the entire Tea House set piece. I’ll even dare to call the last hour of Vol. 1 perfect. I even love the “blink” to black-and-white mid-fight. Although only there to appease the ratings board it adds even another flashy, stylish level to the carnage. Those with an aversion to hyper-violence, regardless of its comical presentation, won’t agree with me, but Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a ton of fun, with Thurman’s emotional core adding some grounding substance to all of the glorious style.