In a review of Django Unchained, Mike D’Angelo stated that “there are precious few truly great straight-up exploitation flicks, though, and by taking on their license [director Quentin Tarantino] also takes on their inherent limitations.” That’s true of Django, but the same comment applies doubly so for Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which cares even less for character development than Django does. It’s worth noting that Kill Bill was originally conceived as a single, four-hour film and that the two parts should thus be evaluated in tandem but at the end of the day, Tarantino agreed to make two feature-length films, and that means each one is individually accountable for its own strengths and weaknesses.
What Kill Bill: Vol. 1 does on its own is give us rough backstory of a number of characters and numerous scenes of extensively choreographed, bloody showdowns. The film opens with one of the simplest and yet most effective scenes Tarantino has ever done: A title card gives us the old Klingon proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” and then we see a black and white image of The Bride (Uma Thurman). She is bloodied and beaten on the floor, exchanges some words with an unseen man, and is then shot in the head, left for dead, but, we will quickly learn, still alive. The credits begin to play over Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” It’s the sole powerful moment in a film that doesn’t care to be powerful.
We are then treated immediately to a knife fight between The Bride with Vivica A. Fox that is comically interrupted before reaching a bloody, abrupt end, and the film throws itself entirely into flashback form. This tells us exactly what we are in for—a darkly comic gorefest with all of the director’s watermarks. Tarantino’s achronological storytelling, muted in Jackie Brown, is back with Kill Bill Vol. 1 which, despite becoming more-or-less chronological after a couple of scenes, relishes in its moments to tell stories in flashback form. First we get The Bride’s origin story: she is the sole survivor of a wedding day massacre by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and when she wakes up from a four-year coma she discovers her unborn baby is dead, kills two men who have been raping her during comatose, vows revenge over Bill and the DVAS, wills herself out of atrophy (Thurman, humorously goofs the line and says “entropy”), and gets to killing. Before we can see that though, the film gives us its first surprise, the origin story of the first target, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The story is an extended animated sequence that looks surprisingly good but also lacks anything that will be weighty in a deeper sense—it’s just another case of Tarantino paying homage to something he liked, though the simplicity of the story is to be expected with this kind of film. Still, despite all the backstory for her or anyone else, these characterizations are essentially paper thin. Bad things happened to her, she started killing—that describes the two characters with the most screen time and possibly two more. Everything is in service of a series of enormous, beautifully stylized swordvfights that take the film to its inevitable end and, admittedly, make the whole thing worthwhile.
These fights are in color, black-and-white, and silhouetted, and are all thrillingly choreographed. Add that to the animated sequence earlier, throw in a 360 degree tracking shot during one of the film’s few moments of suspense, and there is no denying that Tarantino does what he is doing exceptionally well. The problem is, what he is doing is itself not particularly impressive. The entire film is an amalgamation of Lady Snowblood and Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (Tarantino claims to have not seen it, but there are too many similarities for that to mean anything), and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai did something similar but better years prior. Everything from the out of place philosophical quote after the first kill to the Star Trek references to the homages recalls the central premise of Ghost Dog (about a burned hitman who follows Hagakure as he tries to wipe out his former employers), which is itself homage to Le Samourai . Jarmusch, however, said something about race while Tarantino only pretends to, and he is much more successful about balancing Hollywood action with a character-study than Tarantino, who only provides rough templates on his way to exploitation heaven (he goes as far as to bleep out the Bride’s name to emphasize the archetype).
Despite its simplicity, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is not entirely vacuous. Throughout the film, bad things happen to bad people—it’s not much, but it’s something. Rapists are among the first to die, pedophilia is the downfall of a character, and The Bride is herself a fantastical embodiment of vengeful urges. Additionally, despite the lack of interest in character, the film is well-written. Dialogue often hints at reveals that will come more explicitly later, and the film remembers many of its earlier lines (particularly one about mercy) as it approaches its end. Likewise, Tarantino fills the frame with foreshadowing, and his fragmenting of the body is once again used to good effect here. In Pulp Fiction, characters were larger than life largely because we only see fragmented parts of their body for much of the film, all while being told how powerful said characters are. The same is true here, in which we first can only hear Bill and then only see little pieces of him, O-Ren Ishii is an animated child before we see her, and clinical latex gloves and an eye-patch announce the presence of another member of the DVAS before we get a full-shot. There is no disputing how effective Tarantino is with what he is doing, but it is a pity he doesn’t aim a little higher. Tarantino takes-on all the limitations of the exploitation film but does nothing to address them and settles simply to pay homage to a wide variety of genres, films, and tropes and show off his style. To that extent, it works—his love for what he is doing jumps out of the screen—but as he would prove in Inglorious Basterds, he is better than that.