When he’s told in one of his movies that sex without love is an empty experience, Woody Allen says, “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.” That’s how I feel about Quentin Tarantino’s fourth feature, Kill Bill, Volume 1 (Miramax). I don’t think the movie is totally empty—it’s just, well, on the elemental end of the dramatic spectrum. It’s about as thematically complex as its title. The story revolves around a woman, played by Uma Thurman, whose entire wedding party is slain by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DiVAS, which is commanded by a guy called Bill (David Carradine—or, rather, his voice and feet). We don’t know what the pregnant bride did to merit execution, but we see enough shrieking flashbacks to know that the assault on her was bloody, protracted, and excruciating. We know why, once the Bride (that’s what she’s called) awakens from a 4-year coma, she wants to hack her way through all the DiVAS on her way to the title character, whom she once worked for (under the nom de guerre Black Mamba) and who once put a bullet in her head.
She doesn’t make it to Bill in this volume, since Kill Bill was itself hacked into two parts when Tarantino and Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein thought a 3-hour-plus gutbucket revenge flick was a contradiction in terms. I agree; but it’s important to say that, for all its invocation of Hong Kong martial-arts and Japanese shogun-assassin pictures, Kill Bill doesn’t replicate the ‘70s cum-stained grind-house experience. It’s too playful in its form, too artfully scrambled in its narrative syntax, too visually resourceful, too beautiful. (The velvety cinematography is by Robert Richardson, the ecstatic choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping, the shrieking ‘70s trumpets by the RZA.) But what truly distances the movie from its models is the fan-boy giddiness that Tarantino brings to the party. He has never done pure action before: He kept the violence off-screen or at a distance in his last film, the funky and vastly underrated Jackie Brown (1997). This time, he throws himself whole-hog into the carnage. When a man’s head is severed and his blood shoots up like the water from an opened fire hydrant, you can almost hear him cackle, “This is so cool.”
Thurman isn’t a typical martial-arts heroine, either. She’s a tall woman, and she doesn’t have the superhuman nimbleness of Beijing Opera trained fighters. But I loved watching her heft that Japanese steel: She’s enough of an actress to merge her own exertions with the character’s. The Bride kills scores—maybe hundreds—of people, but none of them casually. And despite the campy dialogue, there’s a current of emotion that runs through the action. In an early scene, the Bride inadvertently kills one of her adversaries in front of the woman’s very young daughter, and the moment hangs, ugly and unresolved. The Bride tells the little girl that if she’s still feeling raw in a few years, she can come for her. A short time later, there’s a flashback—marvelously animated by the Japanese outfit Production I.G., in the style of an anime like Ghost in the Shell (1998)—in which we learn that the Bride’s principaladversary, the yakuza boss O-Ren (Lucy Liu), became an assassin after avenging her murdered parents. Kill Bill is like a revenger’s-tragedy hall of mirrors: The heroine of one vigilante saga becomes the villain of the next.
The movie will not be to everyone’s taste; I’ve already read some tut-tut reviews, like the one by David Denby in The New Yorker that ends, “I felt nothing. Not despair. Not dismay. Not amusement. Nothing.” (Like many of my friend Denby’s weary plaints, this sounds better when you read it with a French accent: “Ah felt … nossing. Not ze despair … Not ze dismay … Not z’amuse-mon. Nossing.”) For my part, I felt glee. I felt the way I sometimes do at a Mark Morris dance piece that reshuffles familiar, showbizzy moves into something new and funny and unexpectedly lyrical. Kill Bill literally becomes a dance movie in the course of the final battle. The lights go out and the Bride and a horde of masked assassins are suddenly blue silhouettes gyrating against a great grid: It’s like An American in Paris with arterial spray.
OK, Kill Bill is a lot less radical or memorable than either Pulp Fiction (1994) or Jackie Brown (which plays even better when you settle into the Barcalounger and watch it again on video with a couple of beers and a joint). But it’s in a different universe than Tarantino’s pal Robert Rodriguez’s recent Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which is the same sort of high-body-count, straight-to-video material staged and shot by someone with no eye, no ear, and no sensibility. Kill Bill is about nothing more (or less) than its director’s passion for the mindless action pictures that got him through adolescence. It isn’t sex without love: It’s an orgy with just enough love.