Kill Bill forever cements Quentin Tarantino’s reputation as a cinematic mad scientist, pouring disparate chemicals into a beaker and cackling manically as they pop and fizz. The resulting concoction becomes moviedom’s strangest masterpiece: It’s goofy, gory, and gleefully indulgent. But Tarantino also achieves something that’s both quietly miraculous and deceptively difficult: Over the course of Bill‘s sweeping four hours, Tarantino takes a pantry of familiar pop culture ingredients–some of which shouldn’t go together at all–and blends them into something completely new, and completely better than any of its individual parts. In the process of riffing on the music and movies that made him, Tarantino churns out a film that’s both unique and essential–an homage for the ages.
Unsurprisingly, Tarantino kicks off Bill with a scene of raw, intimate ugliness: The Bride (Uma Thurman) lies on the wood floor of an old church. Blood and sweat mingle on her face as she pants with increasing agony. An offscreen voice (David Carradine) offers a hideous summation of her would-be coup de grace. “This is me at my most masochistic,” he says, before shooting her in the head. As the Bride’s blood pools on the floor, the crime scene is now complete. Ten blood-soaked bodies sprawl throughout the chapel. We know the Bride cannot be dead, as she must avenge this ugly act with ugly acts of her own.
The structure this revenge tale will take is vintage Tarantino. This opening savagery serves as the hub for the non-linear hodgepodge around it. As with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino veers the narrative in all directions, like a drunk at a sobriety test. We move effortlessly from massacres to tidy little vignettes, from chopsocky to Spaghetti Westerns, from visceral drama to morbid humor.
Along this violent odyssey, the Bride must confront a gauntlet of formidable betrayers: Her former coworkers on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (or DiVAS) conspired to kill the Bride and her unborn baby. She visits each assassin in no particular order: Vernita (Vivica A. Fox) has retired to the comfortable anonymity of suburbia. Oren (Lucy Liu) runs the Tokyo underworld with her army of posh hooligans, The Crazy 88. Elle (Daryl Hannah) slides into the Bride’s role as Bill’s lover, and hides an agenda all her own. Budd (Michael Madsen) has sunk to plunging toilets at a strip club and slurping margs in a trailer home. These killers are merely the undercard for her showdown with Bill, who flashes lethal doses of charisma and violence, often at the same time.
As per usual, Tarantino carves out time for luxurious stretches of character study and quirky dialogue. This includes a trip to Okinawa, where the Bride enlists a legendary sword-master (Sonny Chiba) to craft a weapon worthy enough for Bill’s killing. Later, we flash back a few years to see the Bride becoming a kung fu warrior, under the frightening mentorship of Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a cranky, powerful monk. Finally, the Bride visits Esteban (Michael Parks, who also plays the salty Texas sheriff), an elderly brother owner in the Mexican who might know the final location of Bill. All these eccentric characters allow Tarantino to splash his massive canvas with a few more strokes of color.
Of course, Tarantino doesn’t paint alone. In fact, this movie doesn’t get near enough credit for its technical mastery. We’ll start with cinematographer Robert Richardson, who obliges his director’s wild imagination with gorgeous shots of snowy Japanese gardens and mountainous desert vistas. (He also mixes in 16mm for the Shaolin training, and 4:3 aspect for the terrifying sequence where the Bride gets buried alive.) Richardson has won Oscars (including JFK and The Aviator), but this ranks amongst his best and most challenging work. That also goes for the late, great Sally Menke, who edits Tarantino’s frantic fight scenes into seamless operettas of pure carnage. Those fight scenes are choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who does a phenomenal job finding new ways for people to bash each other to bits.
Tarantino’s technical gifts probably go under-appreciated because of his reputation as an actor’s director. So many performers do their best work in his films, and that pretty much applies to everyone in this one. Thurman brings real gravitas to the Bride, a character she helped create with Tarantino. Her tragic heroine also sports a playful sense of humor and startling moments of empathy. Carradine rightfully won great acclaim as Bill, who has an eccentric likability to contrast with his butchery. Hannah is underrated, as the chilliest killer on Bill’s squad. She has a great time with Elle’s lean meanness, glaring evilly through her one good eye. All told, these movies should have snagged more awards than they did.
That brings up the movies’ most debated issue. Is Kill Bill two distinct movies, or just halves of one whole? After this re-watch, I lean toward the latter. Naturally, the decision to split the film into more digestible portions probably helped it find a wider audience. Plus, each installment has a decidedly different aesthetic, which allows them to be evaluated on their individual merits as well. But taken as one unit, Kill Bill represents one of Tarantino’s most ambitious achievements–an audacious, dizzying cinematic bonanza. It also functions as a deep dive into cinema history, referencing everything from Charles Bronson to Shogun Assassin. Quentin Tarantino may never top Pulp Fiction, but Kill Bill ranks just a notch below it.
Vol. 1: 111 min. R. HBOMax.
Vol 2: 137 min. R. HBOMax.