Angry Robot

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.

7 comments on "Kill Bill Vol. 1"

  1. Roy says:

    I have seen the film and without sounding lame, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Really good review of the film.

    The real issue I have goes beyond Harvey Scissorhands. Tarantino must have been aware that Miramax, and any other studio for that matter, would be dissapointed with a 3 hour and 20 minute film (forget the fact that this ain’t no epic). So he must take responsibility for the fact that the movie has been chopped in two. Actually, from what I read Harvey told QT to take 30 minutes off the film and they’ll release it. When QT refused, and demanded that his final cut remain, Harvey said no problem, but I’m choppin’ in it in two. QT then apparently agreed with the plan and didn’t put up a fuss at all. He embraced the serialization.

    I say all of this because I feel that Volume 1 should be treated as a full feature film – end of story. No more, ‘it’s okay but I bet it’ll be awesome after I’ve seen Volume 2.’ Bullshit. It is what it is. Now. Not later. Not after the other movie.

    Anyway, very good review. I wish more critics wrote reviews like this. End transmission. Thank you.

  2. adampsyche says:

    I almost wish that Vol. 2 was released simultaneously, so you had the choice to go and see it right after viewing the first one. But, that would keep a few bucks out of Mr. T’s pockets, and we can’t have that.

    Great review, though. To call it a great film is obviously questionable, though being entertained did redeem it for me, at least until the bloated second half comes out.

  3. bigbabymamadrama says:

    [comment deleted]

  4. z-lot says:

    buy a clue you fucking idiot

  5. D says:

    Way to contribute there, Cap’n Anonymous!

    Roy, you might be right. On general principle, if I pay my $13.50 and watch something in a cinema for two hours, I’m entitled to treat the thing as a film, right? (Someone call an entertainment epistemology lawyer!) It’s just a goddamned shame they split it like they did.

    Then again, a ton of people liked the movie and as such were happy to lose their cash on it, so what do I know really. Sets a pretty shitty precedent though, doncha think?

  6. Sassy says:

    I respect your review D. You made some very valid points. I was one of the fans who loved the first movie and am more than willing to pay another $13.50 to see the second.

    I do believe Volume 2 will redeem the movie as a whole and pull it all together. I personally liked the way QT jumped all over the place leaving it to the viewer to try to piece the story line together, guess they needed to throw in those elements so people would leave the theatre dying (pardon the pun) for more.

    But on the other hand I hope that this will not become the norm i.e. two part movies forcing the audience to pay double to see a movie. I think only QT is worthy of getting away with it since his movies on a whole are so rich, action packed and original.

  7. D says:

    Well I’m glad you liked it, Sassy. Just re-watched Jackie Brown and its sheer excellence in character exploration as well as entertainment value further reinforced my opinions about Kill Bill, which will probably pan out to be his worst film (although that’s not saying much).

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