Vol. 1

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, David Carradine, Sonny Chiba, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks
Director:  Quentin Tarantino
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  Making-Of Featurette, Music Videos, Trailers
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  April 13, 2004

“You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?”

“You know, for a second there…yeah.  I kinda did.”

Film ****

Quentin Tarantino might be absent from the cineplex from time to time, but he’s always working, always writing, and always imagining his next big project.  Though many years had passed since his last directorial effort Jackie Brown, fans knew that somewhere, maybe just underneath the radar, this one time video clerk turned filmmaker was preparing his next cinematic banquet for us.

That vision turned out to be Kill Bill, a love testament to the out-of-the-mainstream films Tarantino grew up loving.  It was so epic, in fact, that he had to split his vision right down the middle…but so perfect was his vision that even then, he was able to craft two distinct motion pictures that made up a single story but were both different in approach and concept.  Each picture could stand alone as dynamic, knockout entertainment, but put the two together and you have something even greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Vol. 1 came out strategically just in time to refresh fans’ memories before heading to the theatre for the rousing finale of Vol. 2.  Vol. 1 was both acclaimed and a little bit dismissed, depending on what circles you moved in.  For some, it was pure exhilarating action lovingly crafted by a man who knew his genres well.  For some, it was a disappointment because it lacked the usual quotable Quentin dialogue and marked the director’s first true foray in to almost pure action.  But few could deny after seeing both parts just how effective and well designed Tarantino’s complete project really was.

The story?  A simple revenge plot.  A character known only as “The Bride” (Thurman) is introduced to us at the beginning of Vol. 1 as a beaten, bloody victim.  We hear the voice of Bill (Carradine) just before he puts the bullet in her head that could have ended the story.  As Nancy Sinatra purrs the appropriate “Bang Bang”, the credits roll, which take us to the first big action sequence:  an all out brawl to the death between The Bride and Vernita Green (Fox), taking place in a modest suburban home of all places.

You see, The Bride was once a member of Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and Bill and his team had shown up at the chapel to strongly express disapproval of her choosing to leave the outfit and her life of killing behind.  They wiped out the entire wedding party, but the pregnant Bride survived in a coma for four years.  She finally wakes up, realizes she no longer has a baby, and finds a new purpose to get her out of her atrophic state and back into full fledged Viper fighting form:  she will indeed kill Bill, and all those who stole her life from her on that fateful day in El Paso, two of which we only get minor glimpses of in Vol. 1:  the quiet Budd (Madsen) and the vicious Elle Driver (Hannah).

Tarantino as usual toys with the time sequence for maximum effect.  He has no qualms about taking the audience away from one scene to give them another before cutting back, but this is never done just for the sake of flexing empty artistic muscle.  He instead manages to juxtapose scenes together for maximum dramatic impact.  For example, while The Bride slowly tries to will her weakened limbs back into usefulness, why not take a moment to tell the story of O-Ren Ishii (Liu), the first on The Bride’s list of people to kill?

It’s a great story in and of itself, and being a lover of many different kinds of cinema, Tarantino even chooses to tell the story via anime.  It’s a bloody tale of murder and revenge in its own right, and demonstrates how a part American, part Chinese, part Japanese woman was able to rise to the rank of supreme crime lord in Japan.

Getting to O-Ren won’t be easy, so The Bride makes a quick stop in Okinawa to meet the legendary Hattori Hanzo (the equally legendary Chiba), a master sword maker who comes out of a self-imposed retirement to craft for her the ultimate weapon of death.  But will it be enough to fight her way through O-Ren’s massive army of bodyguards, the Crazy 88?

The answer to that question provides the film with its action climax, an absolute bloodbath of a piece de resistance that proves Tarantino has mastered yet another genre:  he can now be equated to any of the great action directors.  It’s clear he’s taken tutelage from the best, and his lessons all come to fruition in a spectacular and gleefully over-the-top sequence that combines incredible stunts, superbly and challengingly choreographed fights, delicate wirework and some of the best camera movements you’re likely to see in this year or any other year.

Credit Uma Thurman, who delivers a believable performance in a role that requires intense focus and single-mindedness.  She was obviously well trained in the martial arts and in handling a sword, and her crucial physical displays of prowess make the action sequences work, while her investing of the character with heart and soul inspires us to follow her for the duration…even beyond the ending, when we know there’s more story to come.

For true cineastes, Tarantino lovingly dips into his big bag of inspirations to enthrall us time and time again.  From the opening display of the classic Shaw Brothers’ logo (one of Hong Kong’s premier martial arts film studios of the 70s) and the old fashioned “our feature presentation” title screen, he holds nothing back in his attempt to craft an experience of pure filmmaking.  The quick camera zooms into the eyes and the exaggerated sirens are indicative of these old films, while the mournful flute sounds and one on one showdowns reflect the classic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and others.  The set up for the big fight scene at the end, with its constant steadicam shots and omnipotent points of view call to mind the work of Brian De Palma, as does the occasional use of split screen to enhance suspense.

But the real genius of Tarantino in this movie is that whether or not you can pick up on the pieces of homage, you’re going to be thrilled and entertained by this spectacle.  True, it’s one of the bloodier movies of recent memory, but the violence is all highly stylized as in the days of the old swordplay films.  The blood flows in fountains instead of oozing in puddles.  Limbs and other body parts fly all over the place, but there’s a heightened cartoon like quality to it all.  In other words, I don’t think this is the kind of film where you have to question yourself about enjoying it.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 is simply a supreme cinematic achievement on many levels; a film made by a film lover for film lovers.  Vol. 2 even manages to surpass it…but that’s a story for another time.

Video ****

Tarantino pulled out all the stops in bringing his vision of Kill Bill to the screen, and this gem of an anamorphic transfer preserves every last precious frame of it.  From his wildly varying color and lighting schemes, including a gorgeous looking Japan by night, a sunny California during the day, and even the black and white bits here and there, every image renders with clarity, contrast and crispness.  No detail is lost.  Highest marks.

NOTE:  A good section of the battle with the Crazy 88 is shown in black and white, but not for stylistic reasons…it was to tone down the violence for an R rating.  Hopefully there is an unrated special edition of this title looming somewhere in the future.

Audio ****

You can’t go wrong with either the Dolby Digital or DTS mixes here…opt for the DTS for a little extra nuance with background sounds and such.  Whichever you choose, you can expect a full out audio assault filled with dynamic range, plenty of rear stage action, smooth crossover signals and clean clear dialogue.  As always, the selection of songs by Tarantino is a plus, but this film also boasts the first original music ever composed for one of his movies.  The RZA crafts some excellent and memorable tunes to accentuate the action.

Features *1/2

The only mark against this disc is its lack of generosity in the features department.  The main extra is a making-of featurette containing interviews with Tarantino, Thurman and many of the cast members.  It’s mostly interesting for Tarantino citing his inspirations and sources for the film.  There is also a pair of performances by the 5, 6, 7, 8’s and a gallery of all Tarantino’s trailers, including one for Kill Bill Vol. 2.  The teaser for the first Kill Bill is easily one of THE best trailers I’ve ever seen…interestingly enough, they digitally changed the red stains on Uma’s yellow jumpsuit to brown so they looked like mud instead of blood for the “all ages” trailer!


Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a bloody, thrilling spectacle that returns Quentin Tarantino to the place where he belongs:  on the big screen and in the hearts of film lovers everywhere.  This is his best work since Pulp Fiction.  Vol. 2 is actually his best work ever, but for now, we'll consider that discussion unfinished business.