To Uma with love

Tarantino’s wild two-parter begins with blood, violence and a welcome display of movie magic

LADY IN RED It’s going to take more than a little bleach for Uma Thurman to clean up Bill’s mess.

LADY IN RED It’s going to take more than a little bleach for Uma Thurman to clean up Bill’s mess.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox, David Carradine & Daryl Hannah. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is bloody and violent, flamboyantly so, but it is also curiously playful and often rather funny. But the best reason for seeing it may be that it’s a bold, and endearingly strange, cinematic love letter to Uma Thurman.

It starts with two women fighting to the death with big knives in a suburban kitchen, with a brief truce when the child of one of them comes home from school. Later, the Bride—the “yellow-haired warrior” played by Thurman—single-handedly dispatches ever-increasing hordes of yakuzas and martial-arts villains, nearly all of them wearing sunglasses and business suits.

As such, it is another of Tarantino’s risky comedies of violent incongruities, with the carnage and gore rendered in paper-thin, cartoonish terms. There are, for example, multiple dismemberments with ridiculously fizzy special effects of spurting blood, all of them rendered with the detachment and unreality of some kind of ancient, primitive illustration. It’s B-movie stuff revived by an overheated imagination with access to even more of the snazzy movie technology that Orson Welles once referred to as “the best train set a boy ever had.”

There’s an overload of martial-arts stuff, of course—but excess goes with this particular territory. And Tarantino has leavened all that very flavorsomely here with vivid màlanges of ethnic music, spaghetti western tremors, fly Spanish flamenco, a lethal ballet with mise en scène borrowed from Vincente Minnelli and the classic MGM musicals, a midnight-blue swordfight with feathery fake snow falling all around but never touching the combatants.

There are also wacky switches between color and black-and-white, an anime flashback sequence, and possible homages to Kurosawa, Godard, Sergio Leone, Sam Fuller, Budd Boetticher and Robert Rodriguez and cameos by Sonny Chiba, et al. The baroque eruptions of blood evoke Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (tragic heroism in AK becomes tragicomic farce in QT). And, though filmed in China, Kill Bill just might be the best Japanese film of the year (Lost in Translation is filmed in Japan but is perhaps the best Italian film of the year).

Some critics have complained that the story is scrambled and (obviously) incomplete, but part of the fun of Vol. 1 is in its frisky, freewheeling, episodic storytelling. Tarantino’s characteristic scrambling of chronology relieves Vol. 1 of the need for anything like real narrative closure and permits it to become a collection of interrelated tales, each of which is free to assume its own individual shape.

Tarantino isn’t a great and truly serious director and may never be (at best, he might aspire to the third level of film critic Andrew Sarris’ American Movie pantheon—"Expressive Esoterica"). But he is an exuberantly inventive storyteller, and his campy primitivism restores to American movies a wild magic that has become all too rare.

And besides, there’s Uma Thurman. Her baleful beauty has never looked better and has never had a better showcase.