A pregnant woman's wedding day is ruined when the snake-monickered Deadly Viper Assassination Squad turns up and massacres the entire party. However, the bride survives a bullet to the head, and awakens from a coma four years later with only one thing on her mind – revenge. She was once a member of the Squad, and swears to kill the quartet responsible for the death of her unborn child – and their boss, the mysterious Bill.
Quentin Tarantino has never made any secret of his influences and inspirations. The guy barely stops talking about them, and apart from a brief bit of controversy when it was discovered just how similar much of Reservoir Dogs was to Ringo Lam's City on Fire, these influences have only enhanced the reputation of his films. Kill Bill is his most obvious cinematic love letter yet – it is pure homage, and many of his trademarks are absent. The dialogue is sparse, and two brief allusions to Star Trek are the only pop-culture references; indeed the film barely seems to take place in the real world at all. Yet Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a hugely entertaining blast of exploitation art, put together with love and wit and free from virtually all modern Hollywood conventions.
The first part of The Bride's quest – Uma Thurman's angel of vengeance is never given a name – leads her to Japan in search of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), codename Cottenmouth, who now heads the Tokyo underworld. Whereas Volume 2 will evidently put the emphasis on kung-fu as The Bride hits China, it's Japanese sword-play and Yakuza flicks that influence here. As in the Babycart or Lady Snowblood movies of the 1970s, the blood sprays, fountain-like, from the severed limbs of Ishii's henchmen as Thurman slices her way to her quarry. Indeed, part of the spectacular, climatic tea house showdown is so relentlessly bloody that it switches to striking black & white to presumably make the scene a little more censor-friendly. This is a world away from Reservoir Dogs' ear-slicing and torture – Kill Bill's violence is ludicrous and often hilarious.
The exploitation influences are further revealed in such devices as wild camera zooms, over-dramatic musical stabs, a 10-minute anime flashback revealing O-Ren Ishii's origins, the presence of martial arts icons Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu, and a score that runs the gamut from Japanese girl pop to Spaghetti Western twanging and Blaxploitation funk. But to his credit, Tarantino also brings an arresting visual style that many of his favourite films would have lacked. The cinematography is subtle and hardly the gaudy cartoon style one would have expected, and there are some genuinely beautiful moments – a sword fight silhouetted against a glowing blue backdrop, and a haunting confrontation in a snow-bound garden.
The director is still unwilling to let conventional structure get in the way of his storytelling, and the opening fight between The Bride and Vernita Green/Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) is actually the last thing to happen chronologically. We barely see anything of Bill – we hear David Carradine's voice and see his hands, but never his face. Likewise, the other two members of the Squad – Michael Madsen's Budd/Sidewinder and Daryl Hannah's Elle Driver/California Mountain Snake – will figure more heavily in Volume 2 as The Bride makes her vengeful way to them. The cast adopt a suitably melodramatic tone, and the sight of a sword-wielding Uma Thurman, blooded and steely-eyed in her yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, easily usurps The Matrix's Trinity as the year's most iconic warrior princess.
So does Kill Bill: Volume 1 work as a film in its own right? The decision to split the picture in two has been a controversial one, and whatever Tarantino says, you know it was Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein's call. There is a big, violent climax and the appetite is whetted by a twist in the closing seconds, but it does all feel a little incomplete, a tad lop-sided. There is a lot of action but very little characterisation, and Tarantino's tendency to take his time with scenes means that not much actually happens. But the whole thing is divided into chapters anyway, and once Volume 2 arrives it'll probably seem like a moot point. One can hardly blame Weinstein for wanting to hedge his bets financially – a good third of the film is subtitled, and Tarantino's admirable unwillingness to dilute his vision has resulted in a movie that will feel deeply strange to mainstream cinemagoers. Kill Bill may divide audiences even more than Jackie Brown did, but this is nevertheless seriously enjoyable, audacious stuff.
American writer/director and one of the most iconic filmmakers of the 1990s. The former video store clerk made his debut in 1992 with the dazzling crime thriller Reservoir Dogs, which mixed razor sharp dialogue, powerhouse acting and brutal violence in controversial style. Sprawling black comedy thriller Pulp Fiction was one of 1994's biggest hits and resurrected John Travolta's career, much as 1997's Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown did for Pam Grier.