The following is a review by Peter Bradshaw in association with The Guardian Online.
During the 1970s there was a queasy urban myth that, in New York cinemas, drug dealers were skulking down the aisles at midnight shows jabbing innocent moviegoers with needles, so instantly enslaving them to heroin. After one single viewing of Kill Bill Volume 1, starring Uma Thurman – Quentin Tarantino’s first movie for six years – I felt like the director himself had cacklingly jammed his hypodermic into my throbbing arm. Really, no one delivers that sheer, aneurism-inducing rush with the same intravenous efficiency as Tarantino. It may not be the best film of the year, nor the best Tarantino film. But it’s sure as hell got to be the best way, the only way, to mainline pure adrenaline in the cinema. Whether this results in euphoria or nausea depends on the needle-user.
Brutally bloody and thrillingly callous from first to last, Kill Bill covers its action in a kind of delirium-glaze. Its storyline rolls out in a simulacrum universe, a place which looks and sounds like planet Earth in the early 21st century, but isn’t. It’s a martial- arts movie universe where the normal laws of economics, police work, physiology and gravity do not apply: a world composed of a brilliantly allusive tissue of spaghetti western and Asian martial-arts genres, on which the director’s own, instantly identifiable presence is mounted as a superstructure.
But this isn’t the floatingly beautiful martial-arts tradition as resurrected by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero. It’s a world of Manga and comic-book serials, of flash and trash and assassins who scream defiance long after their limbs have been chopped and stumps are geysering blood in a way I haven’t seen since Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Tarantino begins with the logo from a 1970s Hong Kong production company, Shaw Brothers, the curtain-raiser for innumerable fan references. The heroine’s yellow jumpsuit alludes to Bruce Lee’s Game of Death; the Kato masks presumably to Lee’s TV series The Green Hornet. Tarantino has cast veteran Japanese action star Sonny Chiba as a legendary sword-craftsman, and, in an equivalent spirit of homage, brings in 19-year-old Chiaki Kuriyama in her schoolgirl-killer persona from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale and Jun Kurimura from Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer. Of course, significant casting reaches its apex with David Carradine, the Caucasian who notoriously denied Bruce his rightful starring role in the TV show Kung Fu, and so is here naturally the ultra-villain Bill (though we don’t actually clap eyes on him until Volume 2 comes out next year). Tarantino compresses it all into a stratum of pulp. And now is as good a time as any to reflect how thoroughly since 1991 he has persuaded a generation of moviegoers that, all along, they have known and cared as much about this cult world as he does.
It’s a story of revenge: the traditional perfunctory pretext for martial arts – a unidimensional narrative motivation. Uma Thurman has never looked better than here, as the Bride, who, demure and pregnant in white, takes a bullet in the head on her wedding day, an attempted whack by her former associates under the control of our eponymous bad guy. They are Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu and Vivica A Fox: not so much Charlie’s Angels as Bill’s Devils. (But who is the Groom, that unfortunate man whom the Bride appears to have deceived in the profoundest way possible? This may or may not be revealed in Volume 2.)
She awakens from her coma with none of the speech and motor-skill problems associated with serious head injury. A brief sojourn in a wheelchair triggers off the opening bars of the Ironside theme on the soundtrack, but she makes her legs work through sheer willpower. Uma has a fearsome samurai sword, fashioned for her in Okinawa by the Japanese master Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), and sets off on her blood-splattered odyssey in this through-the-looking-glass world where people fight without encountering guns or cops – a world perhaps inspired by British Hong Kong, where weapons were not as current as in the United States. Uma takes her sword into the plane as carry-on, and actually has it propped insouciantly next to her seat! Airport security presumably confiscated her tweezers and manicure scissors.
A superb, virtuoso anime -style sequence introduces her first enemy: the yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (Liu), with whom she has a monumental showdown in a Tokyo nightclub. Tarantino shows us this happening after her second kick-ass confrontation with Vernita Green (Fox) in Pasadena, California leading to a horrible denouement – in parallel to O-Ren’s early life – and the Bride solemnly offers a little girl her own future chance for violence. This is the movie’s steeliest and most insolent provocation, and it has already moved Variety magazine to suggest it’s obvious that Tarantino does not have children of his own. But all the violence is just too cartoonishly absurd to be culpable in that sense.
Outrageous and trashy it may be: but how many commercial American movies get to be set outside America with whole stretches of subtitled non-English dialogue? This is world cinema without the po-face. Weirdly, arthouse master Tsai Ming-Liang’s forthcoming Goodbye Dragon Inn has a comparable reverence for classic Asian martial-arts pulp-celluloid, complete with appearances from its ageing stars. Maybe this gentle, elegiac film can be served up in a double-bill with KB1: sorbet after the meat?
Without Roger Avary as co-writer, Tarantino arguably loses some dialogue riffs and narrative complexity, and – I admit it – just shuffling the order in which the Bride fights her opponents isn’t the same thing. But even when the film looks directionless, what’s incredible is how the director suffuses everything – costumes, performances, blade-flashing editing and hallucinatory sound design – with something compelling. The extravagant power of his infantilist genius makes objections and qualifications look obtuse. What comes to mind, frankly, is Godard’s playful tribute to Nicholas Ray as the essence of cinema. There’s a real thrill-essence here; Kill Bill just leaves you feeling excited: pointlessly, wildly excited. How many films can do that?
Please leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of Kill Bill: Volume I!