Kill Bill Vol. 1
Does Vol. 1 stand on its own as a good film? Hell no. It’s entertaining, mostly, but ultimately this film (these films) will live or die by the split: the decision to make one 300-minute film into two theatrical releases. Volume One comes to a partial conclusion but lacks many things. Who was Uma marrying? Why did her co-workers turn on her? Why have an entertaining but pointless 20-minute sword-buying scene? What’s the significance of the film, what’s it trying to say? Maybe all of these absences will be filled in the second half, but even if so, one huge question remains: would this film, a three hour and twenty minute revenge drama, work on its own? If not, there ya go. If so, why was it released as two films?
Obviously ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ would be the apt response to that last rhetorical question. As much as exhibitors hate them, there have been plenty of financially successful three-hour-plus films: Gone With the Wind, Titanic, Godfather II, JFK, Schindler’s List, Seven Samurai, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to name a few. But Cap’n Miramax is notorious for his aversion to long runtimes and a 300-minute genre film must make him break out in a rash. But if we have a look at that list again, there’s a certain heft to the pictures. These are epics. Kill Bill, so far as anyone can tell from the halfway point, has nothing on any of them in terms of scope. The only comparison would be to the last two, for by the sheer ponderousness of its pacing, Kill Bill disqualifies itself from the kung fu genre. It’s really a spaghetti western with fights by Yuen Woo-Ping.
Now plenty of people love the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But ultimately it’s the same dirty genre showdown as happened in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, except stretched across the fascinating historical backdrop of the US Civil War. For heft, scope, epicity (yeah like that’s a word) and all the rest, Leone’s masterpiece is Once Upon a Time in the West, which contains as much revisionism, formal advancement and raw emotion as the rest of his films put together. And not to fetishize runtimes or anything, but that flick weighs in at a slim 165 minutes. Kill Bill has interesting formal elements to be sure, but ‘innovative’ no longer applies to what is basically the same bag of narrative tricks as seen in Pulp Fiction, with a few stolen from De Palma and Stone for good measure. And emotion is almost completely absent. Sure, he starts the film with the quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, but film is a dish best served hot. If he had opened with “Revenge is a dish best served boring,” we wouldn’t look the other way, would we?
As if sampling Ennio Morricone numbers wasn’t enough, Tarrantino earns even more Leone comparisons by severely limiting the amount of dialogue. When you consider the breakthrough excellence of the dialogue in his first two films, this choice smacks of the self-imposed challenge, like Hitchcock’s Rope and Lifeboat (and to a lesser extent Fincher’s Panic Room). But unlike Leone’s, Tarrantino’s visual language falls short of expressing his characters’ inner worlds. Thurman’s nameless character remains inscrutable, other than crying when she wakes to discover her baby is gone. She even wails “my baby”, which is pretty close to a cliche. And many other bits of dialogue are purposefully wooden, a fitting tribute to kung fu, but useless for exploring character or intentionality.
But Tarrantino – or Yuen Woo-Ping, depending on the nature of their collaboration – has certainly mastered the rhetoric of the action scene. Not by technical trickery alone is this the best martial arts film by non-practicioners yet; the pseudo-climactic Lucy Liu scene is characterized by a relentless increase and variation in violence that works as an argument for – and demonstration of – the protagonist’s skill and will. Beyond that, it’s difficult to find a scene in this picture that doesn’t work, and indeed most are injected with something inventive that makes them more than memorable: the father and son cowboy detective team, Darryl Hannah whistling in the hallway, the tooth-crunchingly beautiful anime.
Frustratingly enough, a collection of excellent scenes doesn’t necessarily add up to a good film. Half of one? I guess so; we’ll see: half of a good film, or half of a bad one. For all the violence in Kill Bill, the most brutal of all was Weinstein cutting it in half. What we have just watched was the lower part of the body, with the rest missing and presumed to be released in February. With the upper part missing, we can’t identify the body for what it is, we can merely predict. I would predict as follows: bloated, swollen. I’d love to be wrong.