The other week I saw this video on twitter:
It got me thinking about Kill Bill. It’s been years since I’d watched the films. I’d always enjoyed the first part but was a bit lukewarm to the second part. Seeing Tarantino read the opening it reminded me of that opening and made me really want to watch them to see how they stood up to the test of time.
It’s a little strange to think of them now. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 kind of stick out in Tarantino’s filmography. His first two films,Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are cemented as his best work, blasting a hot new talent on to the film scene, someone who instantly got their work entrenched into the popular consciousness and who many directors would try and copy. Now there is the almost reinvented Tarantino. There was the failed experiment that was Death Proof and Grindhouse; an attempt to recreate the type of films and double features from the 70’s that he and co-director Robert Rodriguez enjoyed when they were young. It was a commercial and creative flop. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror was the much better of the two films and even the parody trailers that joined them together were better than the hugely indulgent and dull car chase movie Death Proof that Tarantino made. Since then he’s found his groove again with the Oscar nominated trio of war movie Inglorious Basterds and the westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, though I am not a fan of The Hateful Eight. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 sit in the middle of his career, overlooked by either side.
Kill Bill is about a pregnant woman, a former assassin, who was betrayed at her wedding by her former boss and colleagues. Her husband and new family are murdered while she is beaten and then shot. However, she does not die. Four years later she wakes up hell bent on revenge. She seeks out the four other assassins, Elle Driver, O-Ren Ishii, Bud and Vernita Green and finally her Boss and former lover Bill, to wreak bloody and violent revenge. Originally conceived as one feature, Kill Bill was broken down into two much more manageable halves.
So, first up, Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Released in 2003, I couldn’t to see it in the cinema, at 14 I was too young to get in to the 18 rated film, though I desperately wanted to see it. I bought my first issue of Empire magazine because The Bride was on the cover. I had to wait a little longer to finally see it, I think when it was available to rent on video (remember when people did that?) I always enjoyed Vol. 1 though as a teenager it was always the over the top and violent fight scenes that I enjoyed more than the film as a whole. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it on this rewatch.
Stylistically and visually I really think it is one of Tarantino’s best films. He has always been a genre film maker and Kill Bill is his homage to Asian revenge kung fu films. Tarantino nails the over the top violence and intricate swordplay of these films but also includes the lore and background of the genre in a natural way.
It has a great opening that instantly draws you in to the film.
The black and white, the use of sound over a black screen and the conservancy of the image gives you just enough to get you hooked. The perfect editing of The Bride’s one line interrupted by that gun shot. Bang. Then in to the opening credits set to Bang Bang by Nancy Sinatra. Perfect.
What follows is one of Tarantino’s best films. It moves at a speedy pace never once sagging over its almost two hour running time. It’s got an energy and a vitality that makes it barrel along. I’ve never been one to call a Tarantino film beautiful but his work with D.O.P Robert Richardson creates some really wonderful shots.
When I watch it back now with my greater appreciation of films and film making, I find there is so much more to love about it than just some bloody fight scenes. The fight with Gogo isn’t even that great, it’s over edited and a bit dull. Though the central fight with the Crazy 88 is a lot of fun, completely over the top but with some great stylistic touches like the use of black and white and some really wonderful fluid shots of the action. The ending fight with O-Ren Ishii is elegant, set in the beautiful snow covered water garden where the blood vibrantly splashes against the perfect white of the snow. It’s the film that surrounds these fights though that really makes Vol. 1 brilliant. It’s the middle anime section telling us O-Ren’s history that could be self indulgent but actually fits perfectly in to the film. It’s the fun scene in the Osaka sushi house. The police walkthrough of the wedding massacre crime scene. The picture of O-Ren holding a rifle that is slowly zoomed out from. The Bride is a great character, a brilliant image with a central driving force who will stop at nothing but is also a fallible human being. She fights and kills many people but she still gets hurt and almost dies along the way.
And it’s the ending. Tarantino has never been one for making sequels to his films but in this one instance he creates the perfect ending that desperately makes you want to see the next part.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 came out to mostly positive reviews and currently sits at 85% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, though I remember the Daily Mail complaining about it’s violence but then that’s no surprise, and made a worldwide gross of almost $190 million from a $30 million budget. It quickly became part of popular consciousness with various parodies and choice songs from the soundtrack attached to adverts and other films. Remember how popular the 5,6,7,8’s song was:
Battle Without Honour and Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei was everywhere and still gets used today.
It was an undoubted success.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 arrived the next year.
Vol. 1 was described as Tarantino’s Eastern and Vol. 2 was his Western. Set mostly in southern America and Mexico, it sees The Bride attempt to finish off her list and finally enact the film’s title.
It is a much less successful film. It trades a lot of the action from the first film for dialogue. Not necessarily a bad thing, especially when its Tarantino dialogue, but the dialogue never really pays off until the final half hour when we get to Bill and David Carradine’s grizzled voice makes smooth work of the lines, giving weight to dialogue about Superman’s secret identity and a child’s concept of life and death.
The film starts off well. Its opening scene, after an unnecessary monologue from The Bride, puts us back in black and white and at the chapel before the massacre. Its a good opening though not as strong as Vol. 1‘s. The cinematography of the film also feels like a step down, it is perfunctory rather than interesting and fun like Vol. 1.
Vol. 2 feels sluggish and self indulgent, something which Tarantino has been readily accused of in his subsequent films. Gone is the slick fun of Vol. 1 and instead we get slow scenes, sometimes superfluous like Budd’s talking down from his boss. It lacks the sheen and gloss that we got from the first one. It’s not bad, it’s just ok. Coming off the back of the first one it can be nothing but a disappointment. It takes the time to fill in some more back story to The Bride. We get to see her training with the kung fu master Pai Mei but this feels out of place in the film, a pure dose of the Japanese kung fu genre in a western movie.
It received fairly favourable reviews though it was agreed that it suffered from inevitable comaprison to the first. It is currently rated 84% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It had a worldwide box office of $152 million from a $30 million budget, enviable figures for most films but reflective of the slightly muted response compared to Vol. 1. It’s cultural impact was also slight. It didn’t have the same impact that Vol. 1 did and isn’t talked about as much and I think largely forgotten in the Tarantino filmography.
In 2011 a full version of Kill Bill was released for select screenings. Called The Whole Bloody Affair it presents the two parts together with some changes to the editing to make a four hour feature as was originally intended. This version is supposed to be superior and helps to smooth over some of problems with the split release. However, it was never given a proper full release and has not been made available on home release. It probably never will be so unfortunately most people will never get the chance to experience it. There has been talk of another sequel for quite a few years but who knows whether it will ever happen. Personally, I hope not, I don’t think there is much story left here and I would rather see Tarantino do something else.