Kill Bill, Vol. 1
and the Tarantino Game
Kill Bill Vol. 1

USA, 2003. Rated R. 111 minutes.

Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Julie Dreyfus, Christopher Nelson, Kazuki Kitamuar, Larry Bishop, Gordon Liu, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Chiaki Kuriyama, Jun Kunimura, Akaji Maro, Michael Parks
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Music Selection & Original Music: The RZA
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Producers: Quentin Tarantino, Lawrence Bender, E. Bennett Walsh
Director: Quentin Tarantino


Grade: A- Analysis by Erika Hernandez

Note: This article is an analysis containing spoilers in the Classic sense. Unless you know Tarantino's work, in which case…there is no such thing.

L ike its prolific Pulp sister, Kill Bill Vol. 1 proves that Quentin Tarantino is a deft master of his game. The question is of course, do you respect the game? If you know the QT oeuvre even basically, you also know that he appropriates cinematic storytelling techniques from older directors and film movements. He steals their shots, too. He dedicates full scenes to conversations about '80s pop songs, '50s cultural icons, music videos, TV shows, and fast food. He even features walking nods to pop culture (i.e., John Travolta; Pam Grier; Sonny Chiba) as characters. Those who followed the press surrounding the Kill Bill production and release knew that Tarantino's next installment would be no different; it would just come in two parts.

If it were possible to apply a cinematic strainer to a Tarantino film until something "original" was extracted, there would be next to nothing there. Everything is commentary on something that has already been released into the world as art or product or both. Kill Bill Vol. 1 opens with such references, including a Shaw Scope, "Our Feature Presentation" card set to '60s music, and an old Klingon proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The director even comments on himself, with the title card, "The 4th Film by Quentin Tarantino." Right out of the gate, you are catapulted into his game—a wholly contained and foreign universe that is at the same time, strangely familiar.
Uma Thurman is The Bride
Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1

This particular story contains only two elements: an avenger and her "to do" list. Everything else is pure homage to the Japanese samurai film, the Chinese martial arts film, the Spaghetti Western, the Blaxploitation film, Japanese anime, the French New Wave film, and ultimately, the Tarantino film. Sentimental and lyrical from beginning to end, Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 is an ode to movies and moviegoing.

The film is split into five chapters, each with its own aesthetic influence and flavor, told out of chronological sequence. In black and white, we first see The Bride (played by Uma Thurman, who delivers what had to be the most physically and emotionally exhausting performance of her entire career) in her wedding dress, smeared in blood, and shot in the head. Cut to color. The Bride pulls up to a lovely, Pasadena, California home in a truck that reads, "Pussy Wagon." She knocks on the door, and beautiful Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) answers. They immediately launch into intense martial arts fighting until Vernita's daughter Nikki comes home. The two women, now bleeding, stop for a minute, until little Nikki goes to her room. Our Bride kills Vernita, and explains to Nikki, "Your mother had it coming." She gets into her Pussy Wagon, and crosses off the name "Vernita Green" (a.k.a. Copperhead).

The rest of the film traces the impetus for The Bride's journey of retribution, and how she marks off each target on her list. The source of her vengeance? The Bride (a.k.a. Black Mamba) was the most talented member of the elite, Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (or DiVAS). Her boss and ex-lover, Bill (David Carradine, who is heard but unseen in Vol. 1) is also the father of The Bride's unborn child. At her wedding rehearsal, Bill and the Vipers slaughter the entire party and leave our pregnant Bride beaten, shot, and left for dead. They should have checked for a pulse. She is merely comatose. Four years later, she emerges from the coma, clutches her belly, and realizes the horrible wrong Bill and the Vipers have done to her. She also surmises that her body has been sold as a sex receptacle by a hospital orderly. The Bride kills the orderly, wills her limbs to move, and steals his "Pussy Wagon."

The Bride has become Jeanne Moreau in Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black. She is weak, but she is angry and most of all, justified. Those on her list are the entire Viper Squad and their leader: 1) O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), a.k.a. Cottonmouth. 2) Vernita Green (Vivica Fox), a.k.a. Copperhead—who we know gets eliminated. 3) Budd (Michael Madsen), a.k.a. Sidewinder. 4) Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), a.k.a. California Mountain Snake. 5) Bill, who needs no alias.

"Chapter 3: The Origin of O-Ren Ishii" is done in gory animation. This stylistic choice borders on brilliant, not only because it is a porthole into another world and a salute to another genre, but its contents (an eleven year-old O-Ren murdering the crime boss who killed her family—after pretending to seduce him) would have been impossible to film authentically. After we receive Ishii's backstory, The Bride flies to Okinawa to have a sword fashioned for her by the legendary samurai sword-smith, Hattori Honzo (Sonny Chiba). "I have some vermin to kill," says The Bride. Honzo crafts the sword, while she trains in his attic, and emerges with a superior weapon fit for her kind of vengeance. He blesses the sword and his "yellow haired warrior" by saying, "I have created something that kills people…If on your journey you encounter God, God will be cut."
The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad
Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, and Lucy Liu are The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1's final chapter, "House of Blue Leaves," features our Bride ready and preying on O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu, who is always great as the wicked vixen archetype). Since the Wedding Rehearsal, Ishii has become the boss of the Tokyo underworld, and travels around with her posse, The Crazy 88. This segment is Tarantino's most blatant tribute to the martial arts film. When The Bride finally corners O-Ren, she must eliminate with one sword, scores (we assume 88) of O-Ren's soldiers, equipped with their own weapons. This fighting sequence hosts a variety of tracking, aerial, and first-person POV shots. Like its martial arts predecessors, it forces you to fight along with them. We are past violence at this point. Body parts are hacked off, people are gutted like fish, and bright, fountain-like streams of blood not only splatter, they gush. (This is reminiscent of The Wild Bunch's final standoff—where murder is shot so beautifully, it ascends to the level of glory.) The Bride stands red-soaked and victorious, announcing in Japanese, "For those of you who are still alive, you may go now. But leave the limbs you lost. They belong to me."

In what Tarantino has called, "The Final Showdown at The House of Blue Leaves," The Bride and O-Ren face off in a stage-like setting. Snow is falling on silhouetted trees, but no breath is visible. The "sky" is so blue it is surreal. Again commenting on what you are seeing, O-Ren remarks, "Well, as last looks go, you could do worse." O-Ren's death/The Bride's victory is obvious (O-Ren is only #1 on her list, after all) but I will not reveal the magnificent last blow. There is also another discovery at the end of Vol. 1 that leaves you vying for Vol. 2. From Tarantino, how could we expect anything subtler than an explicit cliffhanger?

Kill Bill, Vol. 1's music is also a prominent element (as with all Tarantino subject matter) for recognizing a variety of movies. Included in battle sequences are Flamenco guitars, traditional "Western" gun-slinging sounds, Leone-esque Zamfir pan-flute riffs, and the more traditional Asian film fare. His sound effects also add to his action, as you can imagine, and just in case you did not know this was a film, he "bleeps" out the only mention of The Bride's real name.

Moments like these are when Tarantino indulges in "fun," which is also a key facet of his game. Toward this end, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is embedded with pop-cultural buttons: 1) We see an advertisement for Red Apple Cigarettes (the QT film brand) in an airport. 2) Copperhead serves her daughter "Kaboom" cereal that contains a deadly prize. 3) The Bride's hospital monitor reads "69." 4) The hospital orderly wears "Elvis" glasses. 5) O-Ren remarks, "Silly rabbit; tricks are for kids." 6) Elle Driver whistles the theme from Hayley Mills' 1968 film, Twisted Nerve.

Like Tarantino's self-proclaimed first, second, and third films, (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is almost wholly derivative. You have to remember, though, that reveling in commentary is the original beast of Tarantino cinema. That, above all else, is his game, which in the end is no game at all. It is the laborious craft of "ripping off" other stylistic expressions and reassembling them—and in turn creating something utterly new. It is postmodernism, and QT has used it to take his place in the realm of the Auteur.

According to the Auteur theory (popularized in the 1950s by the French journal Cahiers du Cinema), directors can only be "true artists" if they convey their brand of film in every single frame, syllable, and sound. This is why Tarantino does not list his writing credits (True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Till Dawn) on his official "by Quentin Tarantino" roster—they are not sole products of vision. When you think about it, the theory does make sense (although it denies credit to anyone else who takes part in the filmmaking process). Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Ingmar Bergman films all have a look and feel specific to their respective directors. We know them when we see them, and that is why we love them (or hate them).

We must now add Tarantino to the list of Auteurs. This, of course, was Tarantino's goal from the beginning. It is no coincidence that QT's production company (A Band Apart) was named in homage to the 1964 French New Wave film, Bande ŕ part, shot by cinema's chief architect and proponent of the Auteur theory, Jean Luc Godard.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 signifies an important benchmark in film history. It proves Pulp Fiction was not just a blip or a gimmick. We are seeing the classic phase of the world's first video store-clerk "film geek" turned legitimate cinema Auteur—and it's about time.

Review © November 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Miramax Films. All Rights Reserved.

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