(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)
What if Quentin Tarantino made a movie that sliced off his best-known trademark? What if, instead of relying on verbose, richly cadenced monologues and stimulating banter, he honed his action movie chops while paying homage to the East Asian cinema that’s ubiquitous in his body of work’s DNA?
He did make that movie, but back in the fall of 2003 critics and audiences were split in twain, much like Tarantino himself chose to hack his movie in two halves. There were those who responded to his kinetic mix of East and West, and those left pining for either the profane wordplay of Pulp Fiction and the more down-to-earth humanism of his Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown.
No one was more surprised that Kill Bill Vol. 1 did not open to universal praise than this critic. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to a few days before its Oct. 10 release, when I waited at CNN’s Los Angeles bureau for the late Paul Clinton. We raced down Sunset Boulevard to a screening room where they’d actually delayed the start of the screening a few minutes just for us. Two hours later, we emerged from the small auditorium, fascinated by the film’s visceral kick and dazzling use of mixed media.
“It’s going to be insanely popular,” I told Clinton with naive confidence, unaware that Joe Moviegoer had other ideas.
Cut to Oct. 10, as I stared dumbfounded at the wide array of critical reaction as I scrolled down movie reviews on a computer. Here was a filmmaker who could have easily stayed in his comfort zone of smart-alecky banter between dudes but instead chose to pare down his dialogue and flex his visual storytelling muscles to tell a story that, taken together with the more laconic Vol. 2, tells a ferocious tale of single motherhood. But set against the backdrop of desolate Texas expanses, neon-lit Tokyo locales, the suburbs of Pasadena and an Okinawan sushi restaurant, Kill Bill Vol. 1 doesn’t reveal its endgame right away. What it does do, quite brilliantly, is splatter the screen with stylized bloodletting, fueled by revenge with a capital “R.”
From the now oft-quoted Klingon proverb that opens the film to its thrilling cliffhanger of an ending, the physical and emotional toll of retribution hovers over the film like a dark cloud. But instead of weighing the movie down, it lights a fire that gives the finished product a momentum that Tarantino hasn’t quite been able to match since.
And he hits the ground running, with a brief prologue that shows The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, lying on the ground, her face bruised and covered in blood, as she comes face-to-face with the titular character, played by David Carradine, though his face remains conspicuously absent throughout Kill Bill Vol. 1. The soothing words The Bride’s former boss and lover says to her make the chilling realization he’s about to shoot her all the more disturbing. An abrupt cut to black follows what should be a kill shot, but following a mellow opening title sequence, set to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang,” Tarantino presses the fast forward button. All of a sudden, there’s The Bride, demanding bloody satisfaction from Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), a colleague-turned would-be executioner, at the latter’s Pasadena home.
What follows chronicles the avenging angel’s emergence from a four-year coma, as well as the tragic back story from another assassin on her hit list: O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the half Chinese, half Japanese American queen of the Tokyo underworld. In a bracing departure, Tarantino uses animation to depict a harrowing cycle of ultraviolence, as O-Ren loses her parents to a yakuza kingpin’s sword, exacts revenge years later and rises among the ranks until she reaches the top of the food chain.
Meanwhile, The Bride, whose real name is withheld until Vol. 2 by awkwardly effective bleeping, looks up retired swordsmith and Bill’s former mentor, Hattori Hanzo, played by Japanese icon Sonny Chiba. Following a most welcome comic interlude that pokes fun at Americans’ reluctance to learn a foreign language, The Bride persuades Hattori to help her on her quest.
Here was a filmmaker who could have easily stayed in his comfort zone of smart-alecky banter between dudes but instead chose to pare down his dialogue and flex his visual storytelling muscles.
How far he goes to lend a helping blade is treated with utmost reverence, and it leads to the climactic House of Blue Leaves sequence, for my money Tarantino’s finest hour behind the camera. Cinematographer Robert Richardson‘s roving camera hovers above The Bride in a voyeuristic way that recalls Brian De Palma in his prime, as she breaks into a restaurant and prepares to take on O-Ren and her bodyguard army, the Crazy 88.
Tarantino depicts the ensuing bloodbath with a mixture of color and black and white, which not only adds a stylistic flourish but probably helped the film secure an R rating. The slicing-and-dicing is at once ludicrous and lyrical, and it crescendos into an orgy of flying limbs and ruthless swordplay. The wall-to-wall bravado, which sneaks in moments of dark humor and even a spanking, displays a master filmmaker working at the height of his ability. Some might call it excessive, but from where this reviewer is sitting, few action movies of the 2000s gave the genre a more satisfying shot in the arm.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 only grossed $70 million at North American theaters, and Vol. 2, released the following May, would go on to gross just over $66 million. Tarantino would collaborate with longtime editor Sally Menke, whose contribution cannot be praised enough, two more times before her death in 2010: the woefully underrated Death Proof portion of Grindhouse, and Inglourious Basterds. Both films marked a return to the irresistible ebb and flow of Tarantino’s potty-mouthed dialogue, which might have come as a relief to some of his fans. But it doesn’t take away the sense that in Vol. 1, Tarantino was able to capture, however fleetingly, lightning in a bottle.