Post-modernism, as a movement, is based on many different elements, but one of its key features relates to looking forward whilst looking back. As such, and across every medium of art, from literature to theatre, painting to cinema, post-modernism retains an awareness of the past, and examines how the past can be reshuffled into something new and exciting. The idea is to take pieces, tropes and archetypes from past-movements and to reshape them, deconstruct them and reference them, ultimately, with the goal of transcending them. And Quentin Tarantino, as a director, understands this process. His first three movies ticked off various post-modern cinematic tropes, including the nods to the past; Reservoir Dogs is built around a pivotal scene we never see and works as a homage to American crime noir, Pulp Fiction, by its very nature, is pulp fiction, and a brilliant experiment in non-linear story-telling and structure, whilst the sadly underrated Jackie Brown serves a mature homage to 70s blaxploitation flicks. Tarantino, a man raised on 70s grindhouse flicks, goes even further with the references in his fourth film, Kill Bill, which essentially serves as a bloody valentine to an older, trashier, and violent time of cinema. The film is now infamous for its splitting into two parts – Volume 1 in 2003 and Volume 2 several months later – which may not seen surprising in this age of hobbits, teenage vampires and wizard wars, but was generally unheard of at the time. Taken individually, the two volumes are very different in tone and style and worth discussing in detail, but taken as a whole Kill Bill is something of a post-modern masterpiece, and whilst it never really goes beyond the surface of its tropes, it remains one of the most impressive and entertaining movies of the 2000s.The Bride/Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) is struck down on her wedding day by former boss Bill (David Carradine) and his group of assassins, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (or D.I.V.A’s) made up Bud (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Despite their best efforts, the Bride survives the attack – though her baby does not – and wakes up after a four year coma desperate for revenge. Volume 1 does little to flesh out the story at this point, and we’re not given any real insight into why Bill did what he did, or even how The Bride and Bill relate to one another besides a vague sense of history and shared baby. But the plot really doesn’t matter much; it’s a revenge story, and one which feels deliberately familiar.Criticisms of Kill Bill Volume 1 relate to it being all style over substance, which is true, but what those critics miss is how competent that style is. Kill Bill Volume 1 is so impressively constructed, so high-energy, and so exhilarating, that it serves almost as a masterpiece of technical cinema. And Volume 1 should be judged on that level; it’s trash yes, but extremely well-made and self-aware trash, and there’s something very refreshing about it. From a purely film making point of view, this is a movie made about movies by people who love movies, and a real treat for film fans. Tarantino is the master of his craft here, putting together a slick, high-concept revenge thriller which steals from just about every grindhouse genre; this is a real smorgasbord of influences; chanbara cinema, martial arts, Bruce Lee movies, girls with guns, revenge exploitation and of course, the spaghetti western, and Tarantino bounces between styles at will, always in control – you’d think that with so many influences and sources, Kill Bill would be a diluted mess, but the film always retains its pulpy and fun sense of identity. It feels like it’s own product, despite being put together from many others.There’s a post-modern and very knowing nod to just about everything here, and the film is smothered in pop-culture references, on just about every level. Some of these are more direct – The Bride wears Bruce Lee’s yellow jump-suit from Game of Death, the opening scrawl comes from the Shaw Brothers, big 60s and 70s samurai movie makers, O-Ren Ishii’s design and backstory are taken almost completely from Lady Snowblood, Elle Driver hums Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Twisted Nerve’ theme, etc. There are literally hundreds of these references, in the form of character names, costumes, musical stings, camera shots and plot situations. But Kill Bill works on a less direct level too, an almost subconscious tapping into the audience’s knowledge of cinema. Even if you don’t get the reference, elements of Kill Bill’s narrative are instantly recognisable, as it’s a movie formed from a collective cultural identity. So the revenge elements, the highly trained female assassins, the climatic show-downs; they’re all narrative beats the audience understands, having seen them multiple times from a variety of sources throughout their lives – often in material influenced by the movies Kill Bill is itself referencing; TV shows like Charlie’s Angels or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, video games like Metal Gear Solid, Bond movies, 80s Schwarzenegger action flicks, etc. And so Kill Bill is very culturally familiar, which is part of its appeal; a love-letter to movies and pop-culture essentially, which reminds audiences of the past whilst reminding them what they loved about the past too. The movie however, has its own identity, and the great thing about it is it introduces younger viewers to cinematic genres they wouldn’t otherwise encounter – Sergio Leone flicks for example, or Japanese martial arts movies. In some ways, Kill Bill is a very nostalgic movie, and will make audiences feel younger watching it – this is not a criticism. The film captures that feeling of being a teenager and catching a strange, violent foreign movie on late night TV, a movie which would go on to become infamous amongst you and your friends. The film is a maturely constructed return to less mature material – less mature on an intellectual level, not a graphic one. The film does function like a foreign flick, but one without pretence – very few other American studio films spend their final half in Japan, with all the dialogue in Japanese and subtitled into English. The fact that Tarantino was able to get away with this illustrates his clout within the industry, and he would do something similarly impressive with Inglourious Basterds years later. The film does remain a technical marvel too. The pacing is excellent and though the chopped up chronology isn’t put to the same narrative use here as in Pulp Fiction, it does create a fresh spin – Tarantino has a brilliant gift for spoiling plot-points and then making you forget he’s done so – we spend about a third-of the movie on the O-Ren showdown, having been told previously that the Bride wins the fight, and yet it remains tense, exciting, and we remain invested in it. The chopped chronology works as a vague joke on spoilers to, as obviously, the film is called Kill Bill, and we at least know The Bride will be getting through the first four Vipers without dying. It’s not so much the plot that’s important, but the way it’s put together. Tarantino sprinkles in delights like black and white cinematography, Brian de Palma style split screen, and an extended anime sequence – which is all sorts of beautiful and horrific, and would have pushed the movie’s rating beyond its limit had it been shot live. Kill Bill is extremely violent, but the violence is heavily over-the-top and stylised, almost cartoony, which means it never really disgusts and can’t be taken too seriously. The cinematography is stunning – the 70s movies this imitates never looked this good, and colour pops with fantastic use of bright yellow and bright red blood. Music use is incredible throughout Kill Bill, and like the rest of the movie, comes from eclectic sources. There’s great use of past masters like Ennio Morricone, which gives the movie a real spaghetti western vibe (though this is more prevalent in Volume 2) as well as the theme from Ironside as the Bride’s attack theme, the theme to Lady Snowblood, and also, the theme to Carrie – the latter isn’t so strange when you realise that Carrie is one of Tarantino’s favourite films. The 5, 6, 7, 8’s have a great turn as themselves, and it says a lot about the movie’s influence that almost every piece from Volume 1 became a part of popular culture; it’s hard to watch a TV show or football match now without hearing a theme from Kill Bill crop up somewhere. It’s probably one of the strongest soundtracks of all time. The fight sequences are stunningly crafted, edited to perfection by Sally Menke and full of high-octave, thrilling energy; Volume 1 is one of the best action movies ever made. These sequences work without context, in that you don’t need to understand the geek movie references to find them thrilling – this allows Kill Bill to stand as it’s own product. The opening battle with Vernita Green sets the tone; it’s very messy, utterly destructive, and brutal. Fights in Volume 1 – in particular, the battle with GoGo and the Crazy 88’s, have a martial arts vibe which isn’t tied into reality. This is not a film where the real world matters, and characters in this movie are much hardier and sprightlier than they would be in real life. This is a theme across the movies, as they don’t seem to exist in reality, but a movie-version of it, and some have argued that Kill Bill is the kind of movie which the characters in Pulp Fiction would watch (admittedly Pulp Fiction isn’t exactly grounded itself, it’s certainly more realistic than Kill Bill). This also explains why police never show up, and why revenge-fuelled battles to the death are so common. The lengthy showdown at the House of Blue Leaves is a confident and powerful sequence, one of the best extended action fights of all time – in a similar world to the epic battles of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but with less poetry and much more brutal chaos. The end battle with O-Ren Ishii is fantastic, wonderfully scored with great use of a silence too, as well as a clunky water fountain to build beats and tension, and probably represents the movie at it’s most 70s homage heavy; the battle takes place in the snow because snowy fights are a common fixture in Japanese marital arts cinema, for example.In terms of characters, they’re paper thin in this volume. These characters don’t function as real people so much as cinematic archetypes, and all are on some level recognisable references to previous figures, such as Sonny Chiba’s wise sword-maker Hattori Hanzo, essentially a stock figure. Others are judged by their weapons, in the style of Bond henchman, such as Chiaki Kurivama’s GoGo. Both Chiba and Kurivama serve as a good indication of the movie’s stunt based, reference casting – Chiba goes back years as a martial arts icon, and Kurivama appeared in one of Tarantino’s favourite movies, Battle Royale; her performance here essentially an extension of the one she gave there. Most of the Vipers don’t appear in Volume 1 – David Carridine isn’t even seen, though he remains a lofty presence in the wings, but Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman give amazing performances, managing the difficult task of appearing tough and confident whilst acting out essentially very silly, geek fantasy fights. It’s a hard balance to maintain and all manage it, whilst also remaining tongue-in-cheek; Kill Bill is a surprisingly funny movie, and very quotable. Again, characters don’t talk like people so much – all dialogue is based in the movie’s lore, through which Tarantino crafts some excellent and convincing world-building.Lucy Liu’s O-Ren is by far her best and most iconic role and she’s a brilliantly icy villain. Uma Thurman has fantastic screen presence and authority and holds her own as the toughest woman in the world; she’s extremely likeable and the Bride is one of the most iconic characters ever put on screen, rivalling the characters she directly steals from. Thurman is given a great deal more to do in the second movie, and taken as a whole, her performance is Oscar worthy – it’s a shame she was never nominated for this. On a final note about the cast, it’s impressive that most of the performers and characters – particularly the strong ones – are women. Kill Bill can almost be seen as a feminist statement, but more on that in Volume 2. If there was a downside to Kill Bill, it’s that it allowed Tarantino to become completely self-indulgent. There was a sense that after this movie, he could do whatever he wanted without studio interference, and results have been mixed. Grindhouse was a similar experiment which played things a little too straight and didn’t quite work, Inglourious Basterds was a masterpiece, though heavy on revenge tropes and outrageous fantasy, and Django Unchained, wonderful as it was, is a little samey; the revenge and exploitation themes long played out by then. Recently, there’s been talk of Tarantino cancelling his latest film after a script leak, which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing; the movie was a Western and likely to follow a lot of similar tropes to his post-Kill Bill filmography. It would be great if he tackled new material and left the revenge spaghetti Westerns behind him.That said, Kill Bill is a wonderful love letter to movie fans and hugely entertaining film to watch. Volume 1 is all the punch – 2 has a lot more heart, and in a lot of ways, is a far more successful feature, though many didn’t think so at the time. Volume 1 remains an excellent piece of post-modern cinema and when combined with its second half, a cinematic masterpiece of technical style.
Volume 2 coming soon!