Yes, there's blood ' pools of blood, rivers of blood, oceans of blood. In one scene, the screen literally turns red, like a sopping-wet towel that someone's thrown over a murder victim. With Kill Bill, his first film in six years, Quentin Tarantino appears to be making up for lost time, lopping off arms and legs and heads like some demented Roman emperor. (You practically need safety goggles to withstand the garden-hose spray of corpuscles from severed limbs.) And maybe that's why Tarantino himself has been getting the slice-and-dice treatment from critics who were hoping for another Pulp Fiction. "I felt nothing," David Denby wrote in the New Yorker. "Not despair. Not dismay. Not amusement. Nothing." But isn't feeling nothing something? How many directors take us beyond despair? Plus, how can you feel nothing after one of the most dazzling displays of moviemaking talent since...well, since Pulp Fiction?
A Jacobean revenge drama set in the real-reel world of Tarantino's movie-fed imagination, Kill Bill doesn't, at first glance, appear to have a lot on its mind other than killing Bill, the sight-unseen leader of an assassination squad that makes Charlie's Angels look like Candy Stripers. And the fact that that's enough ' that the movie, on its own revenge-drama terms, is never less than compelling and often hilariously so ' will please nobody more than Tarantino. He's done exactly what he set out to do: make an exploitation flick to end all exploitation flicks, the Summa Theologica of all the spaghetti Westerns and Rice-a-Roni Easterns he cut his teeth on. But he's also done something else: He's filtered that exploitation flick through the art-movie side of his brain, the Godardian half. Kill Bill is an exploitation flick about exploitation flicks, the tongue-in-cheek free-for-all you get when you cross the arthouse with the grindhouse.
Looking much more ferocious than one would have thought possible, Uma Thurman plays a Ninja-style assassin with an enormous chip on her shoulder, having lost her unborn child (and everybody else in attendance) at a wedding ceremony that turned into a massacre. She alone survives, albeit in a coma for several years, during which time a hospital orderly rents her body to various suitors. Then a mosquito bite revives her, and, after a soul-piercing scream and some impromptu physical therapy, it's payback time. Arranged like a book, complete with chapter headings, Kill Bill doesn't have much of a plot. Nor are there characters to speak of. Instead, Thurman's character, listed in the credits simply as "The Bride," makes a list of everyone she plans to kill, then starts scratching them off, one by one. First up is Vivica Fox as a blaxploitation-style hitwoman, now retired to the suburbs, with a little girl of her own. The Bride brings her out of retirement, to put it mildly.
It's a claw-baring catfight reduced to purrs when the little girl arrives home from school. But our groomless bride isn't in the mood for mercy, so the little girl, who watches herself become an orphan, will just have to grow up and get some revenge of her own. That's a major theme of Kill Bill, revenge leading to revenge leading to revenge, an endless cycle of retributive violence. In fact, next on the list is Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii, now the head of the Japanese underworld but once a little girl who witnessed her father being brutally murdered. Tarantino shows us the whole thing in an extended flashback rendered in Japanese anime, the blood even more cartoonish than usual. And in general, he mixes and matches cinematic styles, each reel reportedly derived from a different source. But the movie doesn't seem spliced together, like some videotape compilation of Tarantino's favorite chopsocky clips. It's of a piece.
Half of a piece, anyway. Like one of The Bride's victims, Kill Bill itself has been hacked in two, this being Volume 1, with Volume 2 to come out in February. For better or worse, there doesn't seem to be a great need for Volume 2, where we can safely assume that Thurman will keep scratching names off her list until she gets to "Bill." The opposite of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill has almost no narrative complexity, nor does it have much of Tarantino's trademark Royale-with-Cheese dialogue. But if all he wanted to do is prove that he can get by without the very qualities that attracted us to him in the first place, then case closed. He not only gets by, he excels at the kind of action filmmaking that some consider the height of cinematic achievement. You may find all the blood abhorrent. You may find it amusing. But what's exhilarating about Kill Bill is watching Tarantino reinvent himself. If only to hack it off, he's gone out on a limb.