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DVD Pick: "Kill Bill Vol. 1"

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“When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” So says The Bride (Uma Thurman) in voice-over in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003), a movie which ends about halfway through a narrative that is concluded in “Kill Bill Vol. 2.”

I was aware of Tarantino’s quirky genius from seeing his earlier films, but I’ve never been much of a fan of grindhouse movies, so I approached “Kill Bill Vol. 1” with mixed feelings. But to my delight, I found the film enormously entertaining.

Tarantino’s setup for “Kill Bill” is outrageously pulpy: At a small chapel in El Paso, The Bride is pregnant, though not by the groom. Then Bill, the man who impregnated her, leads an assassination squad in a massacre that kills everyone at the wedding, except The Bride. She ends up blood-splattered and badly wounded, remaining in a coma for four years. Upon regaining consciousness, she sets out to take revenge against the assassins.

Tarantino doesn’t treat this material realistically, instead turning it into a campy romp. He handles the revenge tale in what seems to me to be an homage to Asian action movies with maybe a little spaghetti Western thrown in. True, there’s lots of violence and gore, but I couldn’t take it seriously—it’s more of the comic-book variety. The result is a high-energy film with dazzling visuals and lively soundtrack music. I also enjoyed the snappy dialogue, and I got a lot of laughs out of the movie. Consider, for example, The Bride’s description of herself: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack—not rationality.”

One of my favorite sequences in the movie is where The Bride travels to Okinawa to obtain some “Japanese steel” from a master craftsman (played by the legendary Sonny Chiba) who vowed 28 years earlier to never again make “instruments of death.” But he decides to make an exception in her case, and after a month’s work he presents to the woman he calls “yellow-haired warrior” the fruit of his labor with the words, “I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword. If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut.”

Another part of the movie that I was particularly impressed by was the anime sequence about how the nine-year-old girl, O-Ren Ishii, “the half-Japanese, half-Chinese American Army brat,” hid under the bed while a yakuza boss raped and murdered her mother. But “luckily for her, Boss Matsumoto was a pedophile,” and at age 11 O-Ren was able to use that to get her revenge. Then the movie switches from anime to live action with Lucy Liu playing the adult O-Ren, and a long sequence—about 10 minutes too long for my taste—is given over to a martial-arts showdown between The Bride and O-Ren at a place in Tokyo called House of Blue Leaves.

Vivica A. Fox also has an important supporting role in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” as Jeanne Bell, who lives in a charming upper-middle-class neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Jeanne is a homemaker, the wife of Dr. Lawrence Bell, and the mother of a four-year-old daughter Nikki, but she had been one of the assassins at the El Paso wedding. After little Nikki watches The Bride kill her mother, The Bride tells the kid, “It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that, I’m sorry… When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.”

I really loved Tarantino’s use of music in “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” Among the many songs on the soundtrack, I recognized Nancy Sinatra singing “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” the theme from the old “Ironside” TV series, and the title tune from “Twisted Nerve,” a 1968 movie starring Hayley Mills. Also, in the House of Blue Leaves sequence in “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” Tarantino shows a real-life Japanese female rock band called The 5,6,7,8’s performing. Their name is said to be derived from their style of music coming from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

I should mention that “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is not a standalone movie and no attempt was made to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. It just ends, and I think they should have displayed “TO BE CONTINUED …” on the screen. It’s also true that the film is long on style and short on character development. Still, for me, the movie was well worth seeing for its exuberant filmmaking and its sheer cinematic virtuosity.

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