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October 9, 2003

Tarantino gets everyone kung fu fighting

Allow me to make the case that the kung fu movie is the epitome of all human entertainment. The focus of any good kung fu movie—whether it features the old-school goofiness of Jackie Chan or the sleek and polished Keanu Reeves—is on the grace and power of athletic achievement through martial arts. The sheer poetry that can be achieved by pushing the human body to its limits has been carried through the generations from the original Olympics to the Superbowl, and in cinema, from Hong Kong to Hollywood. The medium of film allows this visceral and primal attraction to be melded to the equally human desire to tell, and be told, stories. What is Homer's Iliad, if not a kung fu film in epic poetry format? And believe you me—if Shakespeare had had access to skilled martial artists and choreographers in his Globe Theater Company, Hamlet would have ended with a lot less poisoned swordplay and a whole lot more Shaolin whupass.

There are two reasons for my digression, mostly because this entire review can be summed up in seven words: Kill Bill is a very cool movie. But reviews that succinct tend to be a tad unconvincing. Secondly, because in making Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino is as much putting his own spin on the kung fu genre and writing a cinematic love letter to the creators who have come before him as he is making a movie.

You really know all you need to about the first volume of Kill Bill, which opens today, within the first 120 seconds or so. Opening with an old Klingon proverb ("Revenge is a dish best served cold"), it immediately shifts to Uma Thurman, bloodied and broken on the floor while the menace of the incomparable David Carradine (the eponymous Bill) fills the scene, a gunshot putting an exclamation point to the tension. Kitsch and violence, brilliance and brutality dance in Tarantino's hands in Kill Bill, and it all comes together to form one of the best movies of the year.

Hardly long on plot and intrigue (see the Matrix Reloaded for a lesson on what too much plot can do to an otherwise good movie), Kill Bill is one of the most straightforward revenge tales told in recent Hollywood memory. Any film with members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad as primary antagonists is clearly not taking itself too seriously, but what Tarantino's fourth movie lacks in straight-faced sobriety, it more than makes up for in craft and storytelling. The Bride (Thurman) isn't on the path to discovering her inner Zen savior of humanity; she's just going to interesting places, meeting interesting people, and often killing said interesting people for double-crossing her.

There are certain elements of Kill Bill that are so right, that work so well, that it's hard to refrain from gushing (and thereby losing my carefully crafted journalistic objectivity and having my Official Movie Reviewer's card revoked by Roger Ebert). The unbelievably eclectic use of music, always a treat in Tarantino's films, is exceptionally used here, letting even the most intense and brutal sequences (especially in the last half of the movie) take on a tone of pure entertainment.

Also noteworthy is Kill Bill's wonderful collection of Asian martial arts filmmaking talent, lead by master choreographer Yuen Wo-ping. Yuen, best known in the United States for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix movies, has been a fixture of Hong Kong filmmaking for decades, and has directed and/or choreographed (roughly) 18 million kung fu movies in his storied career. If only for the chance to see the polished grace and skill of Yuen Wo-ping blended with the deft filmmaking and quirky vision of Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill is worth seeing for any fan of action movies.

Still, calling Kill Bill an "action movie" is a tad misleading, since it draws so heavily from other forms of storytelling, film, and other media that it has little in common with, say, Terminator 2, beyond the fact that cool things involving violence happen in both. Broken up into chapters, Kill Bill makes great use of the semi-sequential storytelling Tarantino built Pulp Fiction around. Stylistically, it's so madly off-center that it seems to take place in a world about two levels removed from reality. Kill Bill uses this madness to its own advantage, no more so than when it shifts into a fully animated chapter (in full anime style). What might seem jarring in any other movie blends almost seamlessly here, and if anything, the anime sequence is one of the most striking in the film, distinct from and yet complementary to everything else.

So after yammering about all the cool/awesome/God-like qualities of this movie, do I have anything bad to say about it? Well, yes, but only with qualifications. This movie is not for everyone. If you don't like blood, you'd do best to steer clear of Kill Bill, as the violence is far beyond the sanitized and videogame-like quality of, for example, The Matrix. Also, this is only the first of two parts, and anyone who sees the ending of Kill Bill Vol. 1 had best be prepared to shell out for the second half in another few months.

I think that really good movies, the ones you compare to all the others, all have a "hook" moment, where the viewer can do nothing but smile and say, "Awwwww, yeah" (or something equivalent). Kill Bill hooked me when Thurman is taken to an attic apartment filled with "Japanese steel" (samurai swords), and each is treated with the reverence usually reserved for a religious artifact. The swords here aren't props, they're key elements of what makes kung fu cinema so damned cool. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a girl with a katana.