When Quentin Tarantino released his last film Jackie Brown, many critics declared that he had matured. He must have taken that as a slur on his pulp-rat integrity, because six years later, Tarantino has made his most adolescent film yet. To be fair, Kill Bill is his one truly adolescent film - however much Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction drew on the director's hyperventilating, pop-gorged omnivorousness, their sly wit and Rubik's-Cube construction showed a very advanced sense of strategy. The two-part Kill Bill, however - or at least, this week's first "volume" - is a fairly linear affair that (the odd flashback aside) charges down one narrative track and just keeps going.
Tarantino has seen more martial arts movies than the rest of us have had Szechuan hot dinners, and Kill Bill: Volume 1 is his besotted tribute to the Asian chop-socky canon (reputedly Volume 2 is more focused on the spaghetti western, as if we hadn't seen that genre pastiched enough lately). The avenging heroine is a woman identified only as "the Bride" (Uma Thurman), whose wedding was interrupted when her former associates in something called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad massacred the congregation. Who they are, and why they did it, we don't know and perhaps never will. But it seems the Bride was pregnant by Bill, the Squad's (as yet largely unseen) mastermind. After four years in a coma, the Bride wakes and sets out to kill Bill (but first, it feels as though she wipes out Phil, Jill, Lil and half the population of Brazil).
Most of the action is set in Japan, where the Bride collects a weapon from swordsmith-turned-restaurateur Hattori (veteran martial arts star Sonny Chiba), then confronts yakuza empress O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu). The culminating showstopper, set in a Tokyo restaurant, starts out confused (gratuitous De Palma-style tracking shots, and a zippy Japanese rock band called the 188.8.131.52's whom we barely get a proper look at) before warming up to a sword-slinging, limb-hacking hoedown, as the Bride takes on an army of masked assassins.
Tarantino's aim, apparently, was to make a knock-down compendium of his favourite Asian action tropes, and no doubt he's achieved it. Robert Richardson shoots in a virtuoso range of styles and textures, Sally Menke edits at the speed of whirling nunchakas, while Thurman, while she doesn't get that much chance to act, certainly deserves a medal for gymnastic stamina. The film's most consistent accomplishment, though, is the sound design, a non-stop polyphony of swishing swords, splashing blood and screeching motorbike tyres.
It goes without saying that the film's notion of character is purely comic-strip, but even allowing for that, no one in Kill Bill is anything more than a function, and sometimes that function is only to provide a gig for Tarantino's favourite stars. In fact, the characters are cartoons in a nearly literal sense, little more than visual signatures. The Bride seems to exist largely so that she can sport a yellow jumpsuit with a black stripe, apparently an allusion to a famous costume of Bruce Lee (it actually makes her look like the old Paris Metro tickets). An eyepatched Darryl Hannah - looking so ferociously grand that she's halfway to becoming Faye Dunaway - really does look sketched, in a white coat with the pockets drawn on in black. To compensate for this flatness, Tarantino gives the characters scraps of backstory that seem little more than arbitrary. Do we really need a seven-minute anime sequence detailing O-Ren Ishi's traumatic childhood, when finally the character is little more than a stereotypical sword-slinging Asian ballbreaker? Why bother even to name another ostensibly intriguing character, if her only role is to lose a limb in the finale?
It's one thing using characters as disposable grand guignol puppets, but only if the overall tone allows you to accept it. Here we're never convinced of a genuine amorality, and all the talk of justice and revenge rings hollow; Jim Jarmusch did the gangland Zen shtick far more convincingly in his glacial Ghost Dog. What's disheartening here is not the enthusiastically copious slaughter itself, but the skimpy drama that frames it. Early on, the Bride tells the young daughter of a woman she's killed that it's fine by her if, in a few years time, the kid comes gunning for her blood. It just comes across as callous, secondhand gunslinger rhetoric. In the anime sequence, a little girl sees her family slaughtered: the blood gushes and the girl whimpers, a spectacle that contrives to be both sadistic and sentimental. The voice-over punchline to this sequence, explaining how the child later avenged herself, is soul-crushingly unfunny: "Luckily for her, Boss Matsumoto was a paedophile." Worst of all is the film's one unalloyed touch of gross-out humour, an embarrassingly crass hospital sequence in which we learn that an orderly has been pimping the Bride's comatose body to a slavering good ol' boy: at which point you have to say, Quentin, just grow up.
The other sign of Kill Bill's arrested development is the way it sees sex only as a grisly aberration, and the body only as something to be either honed or hacked. While its warrior women are eroticised in dominatrix fashion, the film is bizarrely sexless, even genderless, as if a small boy were using his sister's Barbies because their limbs come off as easily as Action Man's. Plenty of directors treat bodies as blood-bladders, of course, but the best do it with a genuine sense of the surreal and excessive. As Japanese as it wants to be, Kill Bill can't rival those contemporary masters of violent dementia, Takashi Miike or Shinya Tsukamoto. And, given that Tarantino is supposedly a worshipper of Asian culture, there's surely something a touch suspect about his culminating fantasy of an American blonde goddess single-handedly massacring battalions of Japanese? Given that the film's entire rationale is apparently to indulge its director's idiosyncratic fancies, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is remarkably joyless. Tarantino's famous linguistic zing is practically absent, and the dialogue scenes are leaden: there's just a flash of the old wit in the Bride's showdown with Vernita (Vivica A Fox), a killer turned suburban mother: after an initial skirmish and much desultory snarling of "bitch" at each other, the women repair to the kitchen where Vernita calmly asks, "You still take cream and sugar, right?"
Kill Bill will have a huge following, no doubt, but for a film predicated on zip and flash, it's certainly laborious. They used to say that Tarantino was the first of a new breed, the film director as pop star; in which case, Kill Bill is a Guns N' Roses double-album that you're never likely to play much, full of flashy, over-long instrumentals.Reuse content