Quentin Tarantino has established himself as one of the world’s leading film-makers, largely through the original and imaginative reworking of the cinematic genres which have most heavily influenced him. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction reinvented the American mafia movie. Jackie Brown was a new take on the Blaxploitation pictures of the 1960s and 1970s.
His fourth film, Kill Bill: Vol 1, is also an homage to other movies. It is, however, a very different film from his past work and, in my view, Tarantino’s first real mistake since the dreadful From Dusk Till Dawn.
In contrast to his previous films, Kill Bill has no real aesthetic coherence. In the past his films have combined a hyper-real, cartoonish element with ironic, satirical dialogue, and an intelligent use of cinematic techniques like flashbacks and flashforwards.
Here, however, the clever and humorous dialogue has gone, replaced by martial arts action. This has led Kill Bill to be related to films such as the overrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. However, the deliberately risible nature of the violence, especially in the closing scenes of the film, makes it more of a postmodern pastiche of a Bruce Lee bloodbath.
Beginning in modern-day California, the film finds a character we know only as ‘Black Mamba’ (Uma Thurman) arriving at the home of another young woman, known as ‘Copperhead’, to seek revenge for a crime as yet unknown. The women’s pseudonyms are taken from poisonous snakes. They are all members or, in the case of Thurman’s character, ex-members of an all-female fighting group called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
With the shadowy, self defined sadomasochist Bill controlling the actions of the group, it all looks drearily like a criminal version of Charlie’s Angels. Consequently, although the film benefits from having a woman seeking her own revenge, it also has the sense of a ‘women and weapons’ male fantasy.
It transpires that Thurman’s character was the subject of a mass murder during the rehearsal for a Texas wedding in which she was the bride. Thus Tarantino takes us back to the historic link between samurai films and spaghetti westerns (John Sturges’s film The Magnificent Seven was, famously, a remake of Seven Samurai).
However, unlike with westerns, there are very few attempts to engage us emotionally on the side of the hero or, in this case, heroine. Although the nature of the crime committed against her generates sympathy, and while we enjoy her initial act of revenge against a loathsome, degenerate hospital orderly, the detached, comic book aspect of the film quickly deflates any sense of involvement.
As with previous films, Tarantino does play with chronology here, but to no great artistic effect on this occasion (save for the relief of its explanation of how the heroine came to be driving a car with the words ‘pussy wagon’ emblazoned across it). The film often looks like a colourful fashion advert. Indeed, the heroine’s preference for a certain brand of training shoe is the most obvious piece of product placement I’ve seen in the cinema in a long while. That said, it is beautifully filmed, and the Japanese garden near the end is sumptuous.
Without question, Kill Bill: Vol 1 is a superior action flick. The fact that, post-9/11, Tarantino has passengers travelling in planes with samurai swords at their sides proves he retains something of his sense of irony. However, this film exhibits too little of his previous skill to generate any real anticipation for next year’s sequel.
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