Part one of auteur film director Quentin Tarantino’s bloody tale of revenge that pays homage throughout to Asian cinema, spaghetti westerns and Japanese animation.
Quentin Tarantino’s muse for the Kill Bill saga is “Pulp Fiction” actress Uma Thurman. Starring as “The Bride”, also codenamed “Black Mamba”, a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, described as “the deadliest woman in the world”. Her real name is not revealed until “Kill Bill: Volume 2”.
Previously best known for her roles in the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and Jackie Chan‘s “Shanghai Noon“, Lucy Liu stars as “O-Ren Ishii”. Codenamed “Cottonmouth”, she is a former Deadly Viper who has become the leader of the Japanese Yakuza.
Although heard but unseen in Volume 1, star of the popular “Kung Fu” television series, David Carradine stars as the titular “Bill”. Codenamed “Snake Charmer”, he is the leader of the Deadly Vipers, the Bride’s former lover, and the father of her daughter.
Having played Will Smith’s girlfriend in the Hollywood blockbuster “Independence Day”, Vivica A. Fox plays “Vernita Green”, codenamed “Copperhead”. A former Deadly Viper she now lives with her daughter under the name Jeannie Bell.
Having boosted his career in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” as Mr Blonde, Michael Madsen plays “Budd”. Now working as a bouncer, Budd is a former Deadly Viper codenamed “Sidewinder”, and Bill’s younger brother.
Known for her roles in “Blade Runner”, “Splash” and “Roxanne”, Daryl Hannah is “Elle Driver”. A former Deadly Viper codenamed “California Mountain Snake”, she considers herself a direct rival to The Bride.
French actress Julie Dreyfus appears as “Sofie Fatale”, O-Ren’s lawyer, confidant, and second lieutenant. She is also a former protégée of Bill’s. Dreyfus would go onto appear in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (sic).
As well as being influenced and paying homage to many Asian movies in style, Tarantino also cast many actors from the world of Asian cinema. Japanese actress, singer, and model Chiaki Kuriyama came to the attention of international audiences in the thriller “Battle Royale”. Here she plays “Gogo Yubari”, O-Ren’s sadistic Japanese schoolgirl bodyguard.
“Street Fighter” legend Sonny Chiba appears as “Hattori Hanzo”, a master swordsmith of the best Katanas. “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” star Gordon Liu appears as “Johnny Mo”, head of O-Ren’s personal army, the Crazy 88. Liu would appear in Volume 2 as martial arts “Master Pai Mei”. With roles in John Woo’s “Hard Boiled”, and cult classic “Ichi the Killer”, Jun Kunimura guest stars as “Boss Tanaka”. A prolific Japanese actor and former stuntman, Kenji Ohba appears as “Shiro”, Hattori Hanzo’s employee. Kenji is the president of his own action/stunt troupe called “Luck JET” (“JET” being an acronym for “Jaunty Eventful Troupe”). Writer of “Ichi the Killer”, Sakichi Sato makes a cameo appearance as “Charlie Brown”, a House of Blue Leaves employee who is mocked by the Crazy 88 for his resemblance to the famous Peanuts cartoon character.
Four years after surviving an attack by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and being shot in the head by their leader, Bill, “The Bride” awakens from her coma. Horrified to find herself in hospital and that she is no longer pregnant, she manages to escape. Once recovered, The Bride seeks vengeance by tracking down and killing Bill and all four members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, starting with Vernita Green.
As she learns more about each assassin’s whereabouts, The Bride travels to Okinawa, Japan, to obtain a sword from legendary swordsmith Hattori Hanzō. When he discovers that The Bride’s ultimate target is his former student Bill, he relents and crafts his finest sword for her.
At a Tokyo restaurant, the House of Blue Leaves, the Bride finds O-Ren Ishii and her elite squad of Yakuza fighters, the Crazy 88. To have any hope of finding Bill, The Bride must defeat O-Ren and her bodyguards.
Crazy 88 Fight
In the first few frames, acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino leaves the audience in no doubt about the origin of his influences for this epic revenge saga. Volume 1 opens with the legendary Shaw Scope fanfare that will be familiar to so many fans of martial arts movies. The story unfolds in episodic chapters but, just like his popular hit “Pulp Fiction”, not necessarily in chronological order.
Shaw Brothers Intro
The action kicks off pretty quickly with a hard-hitting fight between Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox. It’s a great opening gambit that is at risk of being overlooked due to the more flamboyant set pieces that come later in the story. The two actresses perform much of the action themselves including some impressive high kicks and hard falls. The choreography is swift and incorporates some nice weapons fighting too. The sound effects are a little cartoonish, but I would guess that was deliberate on Tarantino’s part, emulating the dubbed kung fu films of old.
Uma Thurman vs Vernita Green
In keeping with the Eastern styling of this film, the next significant action set piece is a very bloody Japanese-style animation depicting the origin of Lucy Liu’s character. It is the O-Ren Ishii plot strand that gives us perhaps the most spectacular and blatant tributes to eastern cinema. There is Gogo Yubari, a deadly Japanese schoolgirl assassin, and the Crazy 88, led by Shaw Brothers legend Gordon Liu as “Johnny Mo”. The Crazy 88 all wear Bruce Lee/Green Hornet Kato-style outfits and masks. Arguably most recognisable is Uma Thurman’s take on the iconic yellow and black jump suit from Bruce Lee‘s Game of Death.
When The Bride finally takes on the Crazy 88, action director Yuen Woo Ping‘s wire fu style is fully embraced. Although most of the action features razor sharp katanas, the most interesting fight involves Gogo Yubari and her Meteor Chain. There are many recognisable rope dart and whip chain techniques put to good use. For the eagle-eyed, there is even a Flying Guillotines reference! The graphic beheadings and limb removals, with arterial blood spraying out like a scarlet jet wash are so prolific that much of the sequence is presented in black and white to tone things down slightly.
It leads to a climatic duel between The Bride and O-Ren in a snow-covered oriental garden, evoking images from the 1973 Japanese classic, “Lady Snowblood”. Like a relentless Samurai Terminator, by the end credits The Bride has sliced and diced her way to finding the rest of the Vipers on the road to kill Bill. However, there is an unexpected sting in the tale awaiting her in Volume 2…..
Not only is the visual storytelling full of references to classic Asian cinema, but the soundtrack too. Mostly populated by Ennio Morricone’s classic Spaghetti Western film scores, sharp-eared listeners will recognise music from Bruce Lee‘s Green Hornet television series, and there are even cues from 60’s and 70’s shows such as Ironside, that were used in the Shaw Brothers classic “King Boxer”.
For martial arts movie aficionados Tarantino’s attempts to be original with his referencing of Asian films and animation are more often than not, totally unoriginal. However, that doesn’t nullify the entertainment value of many of the sequences. There is lots of fun to be had exclaiming “Ah! That’s from Zatoichi”, “That’s like Five Deadly Venoms!”, “That’s the guy from 36th Chamber!”. The female characters are mostly empowered in this film, with Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in particular playing strong roles both thematically in the dramatic sequences, and physically in the action scenes.
For a director so revered for scenes of unbroken, punchy dialogue, “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is possibly his least wordy project. The plot is also relatively thin with a fairly straightforward revenge theme. Where this film succeeds mostly is in Tarantino’s energetic emulation of classic westerns and Asian cinema. It has a non-stop mix of styles ranging from the wide, low angle framing of a Sergio Leone movie, to the rapid camera zooms of a Chang Cheh kung fu flick. For movie buffs, there must be a hundred references to spot throughout, and even with repeated viewings, you will still be discovering new ones.
As a martial arts film on it’s own, it’s not “Crouching Tiger” or even “Fist of Fury”. But as a Tarantino-esque pop culture summary of classic revenge, Asian and Spaghetti Western movies, it’s an entertaining journey through the various genres.
- Volumes 1 & 2 were originally shot as one long movie. During the editing process Tarantino was persuaded to make them into two movies, which allowed him to keep the majority of sequences, some of which would have been lost if edited down into a single movie.
- Uma Thurman has said that her role as The Bride was her most demanding, spending three months training in martial arts, swordsmanship, and the Japanese language.
- Kill Bill: Volume 1 won an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight 2004 by Uma Thurman and Chiaki Kuriyama. In 2005 the fight from Volume 2 between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah also won the same award.
- Although the scenes are presented out of chronological order, the film was shot in sequence.
- The House of Blue Leaves sequence, in which The Bride battles dozens of yakuza soldiers, took eight weeks to film, going six weeks over schedule.
- At the 2008 Provincetown International Film Festival, Tarantino announced that the original cut of Kill Bill, incorporating both films and an extended animation sequence, would be released in May 2009 as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. With a runtime clocking in at over four hours, screenings began on 27th March 2011 at the New Beverly Cinema.
- “Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest, and like a forest it’s easy to lose your way… To get lost… To forget where you came in.” – Hattori Hanzo
- “You may not be able to fight like a Samurai, but at least you can die like a Samurai.” – O-Ren Ishii
- Copperhead: “So I suppose it’s a little late for an apology, huh?”
- The Bride: “You suppose correctly.”
- O-Ren Ishii: “You didn’t think it was gonna be that easy, did you?”
- The Bride: “You know, for a second there, yeah, I kinda did.”