by Steve Habrat
After disappearing from movies for six long years, Quentin Tarantino finally returned in 2003 to the cinema scene with one of his wildest films yet. Enter Kill Bill: Volume 1, a globetrotting epic that blends together blood-drenched kung fu, anime, squinty spaghetti westerns, sleazy revenge flicks, and, you guessed it, more pop culture references than you can shake a Hattori Hanzo sword at. After his rather docile blaxploitation feature Jackie Brown, it was great to see Tarantino embrace a whirlwind of crazy again but Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a film that turns many viewers off, especially if they are not in on what Tarantino is trying to do. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is another love letter to the exploitation films Tarantino marveled at as a kid, but the film is also a nod to the influence Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had on the creation of the spaghetti western. Kill Bill: Volume 1 stands as more of a vibrant kung fu movie than a spaghetti western (the spaghetti western is alive and well in Kill Bill: Volume 2) and it puts a lot more emphasis on artery spurting action sequences than in-depth story. Despite all of its energy, Tarantino still slips in some knockout emotion, especially near the end when we begin to learn more about Uma Thurman’s mysterious and bloodthirsty Bride. Until then, Tarantino keeps you glued to the candy-colored action and boy, those action scenes are exhilarating.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 introduces us to the Bride (Played by Uma Thurman), who was a valued member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (Played by David Carradine). It turns out that the Bride grew tired of working as a hitwoman and decided to distance herself from the group and find love. On the Bride’s wedding day, her old coworkers burst into the El Paso wedding chapel, gun down her friends, family, and fiancé, and then proceeded to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the savage beating, Bill proceeds to shoot her in the head despite a last gasp plea that she is pregnant. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad assumed they killed the Bride but instead, they put her in a coma for four long years. After snapping out of the coma, the Bride makes a list of all who were involved with the massacre, tracks down Japanese sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Played by Sonny Chiba) in the hopes that he will create a new weapon for her to unleash her fury, and then sets her sights on former colleagues O-Ren Ishii (Played by Lucy Lui), who is now head of the Tokyo Yakuza and controls her own personal army called the Crazy 88, and Vernita Green (Played by Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife with an array of weapons stored around her home. Nothing will stand in the Bride’s way and she will not stop until every last one lies dead in the dirt.
Not nearly as chatty as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 puts the pedal to the metal and jumps right into the bone-snapping action. The film opens with a thunderous confrontation between Vernita Green and the Bride. Sure, there are a few moments where the characters trade clever lines of dialogue but Tarantino seems more hell-bent on spilling as much blood and guts as he possibly can in just under two hours. At the time of its release, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was certainly Tarantino’s biggest and most polished film yet. When compared to his first three features, it is clear to see he had a lot more money to work with (the budget was $30 million). With that much dough in his hand, Tarantino dares to get flashy, especially at the climax of the film. The last portion of the film jumps to Tokyo in a swanky restaurant/bar/nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride confronts O-Ren and her Crazy 88. This showdown finds the Bride hacking and slashing her way through a seemingly endless army of hotshot gangsters in Kato masks as blood gushes like geysers from their wounds. It is hilariously extreme to the point where Tarantino had to scrub away the color and present it in black and white so the film would nab an R rating (it has also been said that Tarantino did this to pay tribute to the television airings of classic kung fu films, which would switch to black and white to mask some of the gore). It is the shining moment of Kill Bill: Volume 1, complete with the Bride dressed in a yellow motorcycle suit that pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film The Game of Death.
Then we have Thurman, who plays the Bride with such ferocity that you would think that this was the last role she will ever play. I love the way that Tarantino drenches her in mystery, even censoring her name in a wicked tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It is great the way he provides little morsels of information to tease and hook us for the big reveals of her character that will come in Volume 2. Yet Thurman remains one tough and scowling cookie, more so in this installment over the second, where he really fills her emotions in. She’s the ultimate hardass who never seems to break a sweat even as she is surrounded by hissing bodyguards. As the Bride bops around in her Pussy Wagon (a bright yellow pick up truck she steals from a perverted orderly), she encounters Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver, a one-eyed femme fatale who is clearly a nod to Christina Lindberg’s character in Thriller: A Cruel Picture. We basically get a sample of her vile character but she is certainly an evil piece of work. There is also Fox’s Vernita Green, a smooth-talking lioness who gets into a living room brawl with the Bride. Fox is basically given an extended cameo, as Tarantino seems more interested in Lui’s O-Ren, the ruthless head of the Yakuza. He spills O-Ren’s back-story in a shockingly violent anime sequence that will captivate even those who don’t have much interest in anime. There is also Sonny Chiba’s wise and scene stealing Hattori Hanzo, Chiaki Kuriyama’s pint sized ball-and-chain assassin Gogo Yubari, and Carradine’s heard and only briefly seen Bill.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is ultimately a mash up of everything Tarantino loves. It is loaded with toe tapping songs from a wide-ranging collection of artists. He opens the film with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” droning over a silhouette of the Bride and has her flying off to Tokyo as the Green Hornet theme trumpets her arrival. He makes reference to countless grindhouse and exploitation films, mostly ultra-violent kung fu that he is always raving about in interviews. In addition to being a massive sampler, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is also Tarantino’s most cartoonish film. It is almost like witnessing a comic book suddenly springing to life, which is why I think some people tend not to really care for it. Overall, if you’re open to what Tarantino is trying to do here, you will be left wiping the drool off your chin when the credits role. Not one moment of the film ceases being cool and you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with glee at some points. If you’re new to Tarantino’s work, this is probably not the best place for you to start but for those who love his work, you’ll be thrilled to find him in full form again. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What a hypnotic and transcendent film that Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction/neo-noir film Blade Runner is. An entrancing genre mashing of sounds, images, words, philosophy, and artistic vision that finds very few challengers to this day. One of the biggest cult films around, Blade Runner was a polarizing film when it was first released but has since gained a wider audience who yearn to be transported to Scott’s twinkling metropolis where it always rains, femme fatales strut in smoke filled rooms, and large neon corporations bear down on the dystopian Los Angeles from all angles. If Blade Runner chose to not say anything at all, it could exist solely as a visual work of art that could hold us in wide-eyed wonder, making us nervous to even blink for fear we would miss a tiny detail. Released almost thirty years ago, the film still has some of the most breathtaking effects that I have ever seen (seriously), not aging a day while continuing to maintain their rusty allure. The film has managed to reverberate with a wide ranger of viewers, from intellectuals eager to decipher the deeper code to science fiction fanatics just looking for a spaceships and laser guns spectacle, for its grand approach and bold pairing of two different genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.
Blade Runner ushers us into the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2019. We meet Rick Deckard (Played by Harrison Ford), a “blade-runner” who hunts down bioengineered beings known as replicants, who are banned on earth and incapable of showing empathy. These replicants are designed to perform tasks that could be dangerous to normal human begins and usually only live about four years. Deckard’s job is to track down and “retire” (kill) the replicants who get loose on earth. While dining on a meal of sushi and noodles one dreary evening, Deckard is detained by officer Gaff (Played by Edward James Olmos) and taken to his former supervisor, Bryant (Played by M. Emmet Walsh), and finds himself forced into taking on one last job. This one last job asks that Deckard track down four replicants who have come to earth to find their designer and are leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. These replicants, Roy Batty (Played by Rutger Hauer), Pris (Played by Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Played by Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Played by Brion James), are extremely dangerous and capable of blending in with normal human begins. This last job pushes Deckard to the edge and introduces him to Tyrell (Played by Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation who produces Nexus 6 replicants, which is what Deckard may be dealing with, and falling for an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael (Played by Sean Young), who believes herself to be human.
In a way, it is not surprising to know that Blade Runner didn’t cause too much of a stir when it was first released in June of 1982. By that time, George Lucas had shown us what could be done with science fiction and special effects with Star Wars. Coming just two short years after The Empire Strikes Back and a year before Return of the Jedi, science fiction gurus were most likely not on the prowl for a much more thoughtful and meditative futuristic thriller. By the early 80’s, it was all about the action and while Blade Runner does have some action (it is sporadic), it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the lust for explosions that a Star Wars fan has. The film was attacked for having a weak storyline and poor pacing, which today seems just downright absurd considering some of the garbage of today that is disinterested in any sort of build up. The first time you see Blade Runner, you will be caught off guard by the slower pace of the film (I was), but Scott clearly understands what he is doing and each step he takes toward the big finish seems like it is a completely necessary one and he refuses stop to give us dizzying flashes and blinding bangs of action. In all the rusted steel, dangling wires, and pulsing lights, Scott gives us a never-ending string of conversations about emotion and memories, making Blade Runner a very intimate and human encounter in a world with shimmering artificial advancement and consumerism.
Ford’s performance as Deckard also adds to the hushed pace of the film, a hushed hero who has been forced into taking on a job he really doesn’t want. He finds himself falling for Rachael, which he grapples with until he cannot resist the urge anymore. He sulks through rain soaked streets atmospherically lit by glowing neon advertisements, pulsing strip clubs, and ominous hotel rooms that belong to fugitives. He is far from the grinning, rip-roaring action hero in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. He is absolutely unforgettable as the drained hard-boiled detective. When the film gets to the final showdown between Deckard and Roy, Deckard is a normal flesh and blood guy getting pummeled rather than a superhero who can keep up an ultra-strong being. There has been some debate over whether Deckard is a replicant but his character wanders a dreary, decaying landscape where nothing seems sincere, where corporations dominate the never-ending steel labyrinth. It seems like his character has numbed to his backdrop, a world that doesn’t require any real feeling at all.
The supporting cast of Blade Runner is also memorable, the best being Hauer’s Roy Batty, who never seems like he is in any big rush. He is a mysterious villain who claims he has seen unforgettable things in his existence and craves an extended life as he stalks Ford’s disoriented Deckard. He is a villain that fights with his words rather than his superhuman strength, which are both terrifying when accompanied by the absolutely flawless lighting scheme and the one-of-a-kind score that allows Blade Runner to take on a life of its own. Also notable are Daryl Hannah as Pris, a leggy replicant who enjoys slinking around like a spider and using her innocence to manipulate her frail prey. She is just as unpredictable and dangerous as Roy. You will also find Young’s Rachael grabbing for your sympathies as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a replicant implanted with someone else’s memories. You feel her longing to be human and her spark when she begins to fall for Deckard. We also get small but equally great performances from William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works closely with Turkel’s businessman Tyrell.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Blade Runner is the marvelous lighting that is strung throughout, effective lit to give maximum ambiance. It can be harsh but often ethereal and strangely soothing. The final showdown between Roy and Deckard is without question the best lighting sequence in the entire film, one that finds our characters backlit by beams of white light in a derelict prison of chain link fence, wood, and checkered tile. The climax does swell into a crescendo of run-down beauty, a dazzling mixture of glorious rays of light, moldy darkness, swirling score, and heady ideas of death and memories. For the casual viewer, it may take a few viewings to really allow you to make a final judgment on the film. I myself was a little unsure of how I felt about it on my first viewing but as years pass, I have grown fond of the film’s technical accomplishments, its neo-noir story, and Ford’s controlled performance. A busy work of art that demands we look closer, Blade Runner dares to challenge the viewer and push the boundaries of science fiction, creating something that still feels fresh to this day.
Blade Runner is available on Blu-ray and DVD.