Kill Bill: Volume 1 

Boring.  It might be unfair to arrive at such a dismal conclusion after seeing only half of a film, so I’ll preface my review with a plea that the second half of Kill Bill somehow redeems the tediousness of the first half. 

I wanted so much to like this movie, and for a few moments I almost did, but I couldn’t help feeling that the whole1 hour and 45 minutes of Volume 1 could have been encapsulated in a single representative scene.  In a board meeting with all the Tokyo Yakuza bosses seated round a table, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) is hosting a banquet to celebrate her installation as the group’s supreme overlord.  One of the bosses, a Mr. Tanaka, expresses his discontent.  “It’s a perversion,” Tanaka keeps repeating, “A perversion!”  He finally explains that the perversion bothering him is O-Ren Ishii’s mixed lineage: “A Chinese-Japanese-American bitch.”  Without hesitation, O-Ren Ishii glides across the table top, katana in hand, and in one lighting-quick motion lops off his head.  A gurgling fountain of red sprays the screen.  She quickly resumes her calm and explains to the shocked mobsters in English that they may come to her with any concerns about any topic, except the topic just raised.

That scene sums up Kill Bill, Volume 1.  The film is one long elaborately choreographed violent gesture in defense of hybridity.  The part origins of this hybrid emanate from Chinese martial arts movies produced in Hong Kong in the 1970s by innovators like the Shaw Brothers, and the ultra violent Japanese Yakuza crime films of Sonny Chiba from the same era.  The movie is in fact a Chinese-Japanese-American bitch, but where that combination produced imaginative, entertaining and beautiful results in more recent Asian American hybrids such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and The Matrix (1999), in Kill Bill, the hybridity is, unfortunately, rather dull.

Tarantino tries to infuse his movie with the respect for honor, tradition, and need for revenge that the genre depends upon for its narrative thrust but there’s too little character development to hang such lofty sentiments upon.  All we know about “the Bride” is that she survived the massacre of her wedding party, and after 4 years in a coma, and the loss of an unborn child, she wants revenge.  Instead of providing hints as to why a deadly assassin nicknamed Black Mamba would take to the altar, we are given a rather boring survey of the crime scene by an El Paso sheriff (Michael Parks) and his irreverent son.  There’s potential for Cohen brothers style humor in the scene, but it fails and comes off looking like more hybridity for hybridity’s sake. 

Tarantino’s earlier forays into hybridity—Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997) most notably—were refreshing, inventive nostalgia trips with specific agendas to assault the “politically correct” conventions of the 1990s and revive forgotten genres like the Blaxploitation movies that gave Jackie Brown’s star, Pam Grier her initial fame.  Pulp Fiction’s complex plot, numerous characters, and Byzantine chronology seemed endlessly entertaining compared to this recent effort.  Kill Bill had me looking at my watch during the first fight scene between Copperhead (Vivica Fox) and Black Mamba.  Even the comic appearance of Copperhead’s daughter failed to elicit any emotion. 

Hybrids like this certainly can work, but Tarantino, in spite pf Kill Bill’s length takes too many short cuts, substituting graphic violence for narrative substance.  Like the scene where Cottonmouth beheads her detractor, Tarantino has only violent dismemberment to offer those who question the success of this Chinese-Japanese-American movie.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: March 2004.