OVERRATED: Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (USA, 2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurmann, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen 

IMDb Top 250: #170 (7/4/18)

One of the saddest things in the world of film is seeing a good film-maker failing to fulfil their full potential. Many a director who has lit up the industry with their first effort ends up either disappearing from view altogether or settling into a long career of disappointments which can never hope to recapture that magic. Making fun of a film-maker who consistently makes nothing but garbage is like shooting fish in a barrel; picking apart an underwhelming offering when you expected nothing but the best is far more painful and difficult.
In the 1990s it appeared, at least to the casual observer, that Quentin Tarantino could do no wrong. He followed up Reservoir Dogs with the acclaimed screenplay for True Romance, and solidified his reputation through the success of Pulp Fiction, culminating in his first Oscar win. Following a number of shaky side projects (the ill-fated Four Rooms, the disappointing From Dusk till Dawn and some uncredited writing jobs), he returned to prominence with his best film, Jackie Brown. But where that film was a step up towards maturity, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a retreat to familiar territory, with style to spare but nothing between its ears.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is traditionally seen as the point in Tarantino's career where he stopped being edgy and interesting and simply became lazy and self-indulgent. The fact that he had to split the original film in two to get Miramax to release it suggests that there is more than a grain of truth in this line of reasoning. Even if we take Volume 1 on its own merits, at 111 minutes it feels much longer than it is, having none of the built-in efficiency of Reservoir Dogs, either on a narrative level or a production level.
Revenge thrillers have one of the simplest structures of any story in literature: bad stuff happens, either to the hero or someone the hero cares about, they go on a quest to get revenge, more bad stuff happens in the process, cut to black. You don't need in excess of four hours to tell the kind of story that most revenge thrillers of the kind that Tarantino loves would tell in 90 minutes, two hours at the most. If Tarantino was truly the kind of super-fan of exploitation cinema that he claims to be, he would have imposed upon himself the same rigorous discipline that those directors had. What we get instead is two hours of flannel as he seeks to be as reference-laden as he can, and in which what story there is comes second.
There is no denying that Volume 1 (as it shall hereafter be called) looks good. Even at his worst, Tarantino does have the ability to create eye-catching shots, using interesting camera positions and working a range of styles into the finished product. The film does have a distinctive look to it even if the editing can't disguise the fact that you're not really getting anything new, and the set-piece involving the Crazy 88 has any number of creative and distinctive deaths to entertain fans of splatter. The scene is utterly preposterous - the legion of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded put up more of a fight - but even if your experience of martial arts films or wuxia doesn't extend far beyond Enter the Dragon and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon respectively, you will find a few moments to enjoy.
The problem is not that Tarantino has lost his distinctive style and therefore can't deliver a well-worn story in a novel and compelling way. The problem is that he has stopped using his distinctive style to tell a story, and has starting using his style to shoehorn in references regardless of whether they serve the story or not. His early films may have paid homage to many different films or genres (Reservoir Dogs being his version of The Killing, for instance), but they ultimately had structure because of their adherence - albeit subversively - to the demands of their genre. Instead of a taut, clever martial arts film, Volume 1 is a bloated, episodic list of nods and winks at other films which overstays its welcome and very quickly becomes tiresome.
Many of the visuals tricks that Tarantino employs in this film come across more as gimmicks than a genuinely creative decision. His decision to use chapters and non-linear storytelling is not motivated by anything with any great foundation; he does it because he's Tarantino and that's his thing, rather than because it adds weight or depth to the story or brings out new ideas or themes. His use of split-screen and certain musical cues also feels tired, and even the scenes which work well (like the Hattori Hanzo section) lack the sparkle of his earlier work.
An equally big problem with the film is that it lacks the three-dimensional characters which made Jackie Brown feel like a step up. Every single character in Volume 1 talks like Tarantino, regardless of their role in the plot, the amount of screen time they have or their level of intelligence; much of the dialogue could have been swapped around from actor to actor without losing any impact. Characters whose backstory is set up as intriguing (such as the anime-style background to Lucy Liu's character) end up as mere mouthpieces for whatever half-clever thing Tarantino was thinking at the time.
Because the dialogue and its delivery are so uniform (and uniformly mediocre at that), Volume 1 also fails at being any kind of female empowerment story. It's all well and good putting a woman in traditionally male roles or male situations and depict her holding her own, but unless you characterise her in an intelligent, rounded way, you essentially just have Bruce Lee in a dress (or set of leathers, in this case). The majority of the Bride's actions in Volume 1 fit in with existing adolescent male expectations of the revenge protagonist - if you used CGI and replaced her with Charles Bronson's character from Death Wish, no-one would have noticed. The character who should have the female empowerment arc, O-Ren Ishii, gets a load of backstory, a few opportunities to shout in close up and an underwhelming duel with the Bride. Her whole arc screams 'missed opportunity', and while Lucy Liu does the best she can with the role it is not the best use of her talents.
This lack of characterisation extends to the other performances as well. None of the principle cast are especially bad, but unlike previous Tarantino vehicles they don't get the room to cultivate the kind of performance that would surprise an audience, like John Travolta or Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction. It's always good to see Daryl Hannah back on screen since she is such a charismatic screen presence, but she gets far too little to work with, and David Carradine is rather dull as Bill. As for Uma Thurman, her character is far less charismatic than her Pulp Fiction equivalent and her delivery is wooden and unconvincing. While she deserves our sympathy for the permanent injuries that she sustained during the filming, her acting here is every bit as unconvincing and off-putting as her work on Batman and Robin.
Because the film is so clearly a case of style over substance, moving from set-piece to set-piece rather than organically building, all the parts of it which should be shockingly memorable actually end up being slightly dull. Because we are not as emotionally invested in the characters as we should be, we don't really care about all the blood being spilled. We feel bad when the Bride is wronged, but her actions don't endear us to her any further, and there's no sense of vindication when the film comes to an end. The editing hinders this process further, cutting so quickly that some of the violence loses whatever weight (physical or emotional) it hoped to possess. In editing terms, Volume 1's death scenes are to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn what Chicago was to Singing in the Rain - endless cutting around flashy angles, instead of genuine scale and spectacle.
In the midst of all this, it would be wrong to think that Volume 1 was impossible to endure. Taken as a film on its own outside of Tarantino's involvement, it's a pretty run-of-the-mill affair, with a handful of memorable moments in among sections which are baggy or unremarkable. Of course, not every revenge thriller has to deliver the same level of nuance or subversion as Get Carter, just as not every 'one last job' heist film has to have the existential quality of Sexy Beast. But given how outstanding Tarantino's early work was, being unremarkable is arguably the film's greatest transgression.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a long-winded disappointment which fails to deliver on either its story or the style in which it is told. For all the memorable moments or decent lines which are scattered throughout, it represents a big climbdown from Tarantino's 1990s work from which he has never completely recovered as a film-maker. Whether taken on its own or with the second part, it's ultimately a frustrating and underwhelming experience. It's not terrible, it's just rather boring.

For more of my thoughts on Get Carter, listen to the Lionheart Radio Movie Hour podcast from February 2011 here.

NEXT REVIEW: Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)