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Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino pays an homage of sorts to the kung fu genre in his quirky action epic Kill Bill. When a pregnant assassin (Uma Thurman) is targeted for termination by her colleagues, she becomes the center of a brutal massacre on her wedding day. In the wake of the violent attack, she loses her husband and unborn child and is left for dead. But the ambush only puts her into a coma, not the grave, and she awakens four years later with a taste for vengeance. Without hesitation, she immediately proceeds to hunt down and slay those who wronged her.

In an apparent ploy to double up movie sales and manage Kill Bill's excessive runtime, the lengthy saga is split into two installments: Volume 1 and Volume 2. I'm a little annoyed at the notion of studios breaking up long movies into smaller halves, thereby being able to rake in twice as much booty at the box office and video store (should The Lord of the Rings trilogy be chopped up into six 90-minute episodes?). But at the same time, I don't think a three hour tour of Tarantino would have been as easy to digest. Kill Bill is a virtually perpetual orgy of blood and violence. And while I dig the blood and violence, I'll admit that three straight hours of it would have been tiresome. Even in its shortened incarnation, the hack-slash-chop-talk formula of this movie borders on repetitive. So let's just say that for this particular experiment, the two-part approach helped--but it would be worrisome if this became a standard Hollywood practice.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 sets up the story of Uma Thurman's enigmatic and deadly character, the Bride, by showing the attack that shattered her life, the awakening from a long coma, and the hatred she has for her old co-workers. Her checklist of who she plans to knock off features five targets: her boss Bill (David Carradine) and assassins O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). The majority of Volume 1 focuses on the Bride getting back into the bloodshedding game and taking down O-Ren, a half-Japanese, half-Chinese American who has ascended to the head of the Yakuza, Japan's underworld crime syndicate.

Kill Bill takes Tarantino's trademark brand of excessive violence in an over-the-top direction that mimics the fun but cheesy kung fu revenge films of yesteryear. With a "you kill me, now I kill you!" work ethic, this action adventure is drenched in buckets of blood and packed full of dismembered body parts. Armed with a seemingly mystical blade, the Bride slices and dices her way through legions of foes in a manner that is comically ludicrous, yet entertaining enough for those who can appreciate the lighter side of mass slaughter. The characters are as chatty as fans would expect from a Taraninto script, frequently stopping mid-carnage to exchange hokey quips and odd banter. Even the subtitled foreigners get verbose--I particularly enjoyed the energetic argument between Sonny Chiba and a reluctant underling over serving sake.

Like Pulp Fiction, this story is told in a non-linear fashion. Some people may be put off by this, but it is ultimately a positive, allowing the movie to jump straight to the action, then fill in the backstory piece by piece in murder mystery style. The resulting arrangement is compelling even when it "gives away the ending." For example, though we quickly learn that O-Ren Ishii gets whacked, her ensuing conflict with the Bride is no less interesting. Indeed, there is an urgent sense of anticipation in knowing what is to come. Other unconventional bits in Kill Bill also work well, such as the origin of O-Ren being related in a cool animated sequence.

However, something this flick could have done without is the further indulgence of Tarantino's obsession with feet. His past movies have already hammered away his foot fixation--it's time to move on already. This director's fetish is getting as campy and played out as John Woo's preoccupation with white doves.

Lucy Liu gets a lot of the spotlight in Volume 1, and she makes for a fine villain. As the unlikely Yakuza queen, she is dangerous, lethal, and crazy. She is easily more formidable than Vivica A. Fox's assassin-turned-soccer-mom, and more interesting than titular bad guy Bill. In fact, the lack of intrigue surrounding Bill is a problem--there is little that suggests he will be very impressive when he comes to light in Volume 2. All his posturing from the shadows merely parodies bland villainy, and knowing that he is played by old Kung Fu dude David Carradine makes his upcoming appearance anti-climactic at best (except, perhaps, for those who think Adam West should reprise his old Batman role). Granted, he doesn't get much screentime in Volume 1, but Daryl Hannah's character manages to spark a certain level of expectation in spite of having similarly limited minutes. Maybe it's only because she is sporting a mysterious eyepatch, but at least it's something. Bill, on the other hand, is just some stale geezer named Bill.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 ends with a decent cliffhanger that drops an info bomb and sets the stage for even more conflict in Kill Bill Vol. 2. And in the tradition of solid features that end on a "to be continued..." note, this first half of the whole is loaded with enough teasers and unanswered questions to entice many viewers back for the story's resolution.

 


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