By: Erik Swift
A few weeks ago, I caught the Aussie Invasion tour, featuring four bands from Down Under. The Vines headlined the outing, but the night was owned by Jet – a bell-bottomed quartet that the general public knows from an iPod commercial’s use of their song “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” Their performance that night, which included songs “Cold Hard Bitch,” “Rollover DJ” and a rollicking jam during a closing cover of Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright,” made for an electrifying 45-minute set. Jet knows their rock and roll, and the scruffy Melbourne band’s debut disc “Get Born” is the best Rolling Stones album since “Exile On Main Street.” From singer Nic Cester’s Faces-era Rod Stewart yelp to his brother Chris’s backbeat coupled with Mark Wilson’s burning bass and Cam Muncey’s swaggering guitar riffs that channel everyone from Keith Richards to Lenny Kravitz, the foursome brew a sizzling garage-rock stew that has been heard and done before, but manages to sound excitingly fresh and new – unlike anything on the radio or being made right now.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol.1” provokes a similar response. The opening Shaw-scope logo backed with crappy audio ignites 111 minutes of hat-tipping reverence sure to dominate film geek conversations for years. At his core, the writer/director is a movie fan, and this is a loving embrace of his favorite genres and influences. Like Jet for rock music, “Kill Bill Vol.1” is a jaw-dropping homage to every spaghetti western, anime, kung fu, blaxploitation and yakuza flick that came before it while blazing new trails that dare to be followed. Unfortunately, two hurdles tend to prevent many from appreciating Tarantino (usually those that wonder why John Travolta reappears in “Pulp Fiction”). The first is the failure to grasp that he’s having fun. The other is missing the deluge of violent black humor at inappropriate times. After overcoming those obstacles and the prolific Tarantino-isms (jumping narratives, Red Apple cigarettes, etc.), it’s effortless to discover a much more accessible and entertaining production than the waste of time and talent that was “Jackie Brown.” Quite simply, this is the best action film since “Face/Off.”
Lit in gorgeous black and white, Uma Thurman – bloodied and rapidly panting – is the first image seen. The plot quickly develops after a brutal opening sequence prominently featuring the gravelly voice and solitary footsteps of David Carradine. A former assassin whose entire wedding party is slaughtered by her past associates, The Bride (as Thurman’s character becomes known) escapes death and is out for revenge. Intent on tracking down each of those responsible for her pain, the nameless warrior hunts her ruthless prey with anything she can get her hands on (coffee mugs, knives, swords, doors). With a feverish intensity echoing Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Thurman gives a stunning performance that becomes more focused as the film continues. Witness the scene where she wakes from a four-year coma and screams in anguish, feeling a flat stomach where there was once a baby. Her mournful wails pierce a silent hospital ward, and it’s easily the most emotional moment in an action flick since Mel Gibson pulled the gun from his mouth in “Lethal Weapon.”
Rarely is a production so perfect that it defies criticism, but it’s difficult to find a thing wrong with “Kill Bill.” This chop-socky epic is a smooth and slick retelling of the classic Shakespearean vengeance story, and it never drags despite being sliced in half from its initial four-hour length (“Vol. 2” is in theaters now). Good writing and filmmaking is a rarity in this world of reality TV, so it’s easy to watch the end credits and drool for more. Tarantino’s mesmerizing use of the camera continues – the shot that moves from the dance floor of the lair of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and up over its walls while the Bride follows Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) is a crane operator’s dream. However, Tarantino’s real achievement is spawning a hell of an action movie with truly stunning fight sequences. In a year that saw “The Matrix Reloaded” elevate hand-to-hand combat into an art form, Tarantino’s decision to hire the legendary Sonny Chiba as both actor and fight choreographer adds to the astounding authenticity of every punch and swinging blade. A swirling blur of weapons and battle cries combine into a dizzying peak during the Bride’s climactic showdown with Liu’s henchmen. It’s important to keep the film’s violence in its intended darkly humorous light, because the spewing blood gets cartoonishly heavy here.
As usual, Tarantino’s casting works flawlessly. Carradine’s unseen Bill, the powerful Liu and Darryl Hannah’s malicious Elle Driver are great, but the supporting cast are knockouts. Nineteen-year-old Chiaki Kuiyama is a wonder as Ishii’s protégé Go Go Yubari, and her vicious encounter with the Bride provides one of the film’s best moments. Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo’s interplay with Kenji Ohba during the sushi shop sequence is a riot – these two deserve a separate movie of their own. The soundtrack, courtesy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, is a seamless weave of blaring funk snippets (Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft”), searing contributions by Ennio Morricone and Bernard Hermann and even Nancy Sinatra’s reading of Cher’s “Bang Bang (I Shot My Baby Down).”
Puns aside, Miramax’ DVD of “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is a double-edged sword. Boldly severing the original film, a combination package of both volumes when the final half hits video is certain, and a comprehensive edition is sure to see the light of day now that Tarantino is assembling one for the Asian market. The extras are adequate on this single disc, but a 20-minute documentary and the two songs performed by the 5,6,7, 8s don’t cut it. If it weren’t for the amazing film contained here, many would just wait for the full set. Don’t do it – join the hard cores and grab the first volume wherever you can.