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. "Kill Bill, Vol. 1"

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino combines babes and steel with bloody revenge in a stylistic brew of methodical madness to make it elemental. This is "High Noon" in samurai garb; chop socky with some character-basis for drama; skill of action choreography on a very high level. But, is it art? Does it, as half a movie, work? Will it make heaps of money?

Whatever you want to call it, the Tarantino taste is hugely cinematic, bringing saga proportions to a mission of death, virtuosic imagery to the palette of imagination and keen athleticism to the sheer beauty of its cast. He does bring out the best in his actors even as they absorb themselves into the demands of his world, one invented out of Italian westerns and American gangsters in Japanese yakuza and Hong Kong kung fu garb.

The story is simple: Bill (barely seen David Carradine) shoots his pregnant lover known as "The Bride", code named "Black Mamba" (Uma Thurman) as she appeals to his mercy by saying, "It's your baby...". The shot causes her to lapse into a coma which she awakens from 4 years later, revives her atrophied body with mystical will power and sets out to revenge herself as only the best martial arts killer can do. Bill will be the ultimate prize.

Rarely has so much action beef turned so slender a story skeleton so deliciously glamorous. Once we're on a Tarantino tear no detail is too small for cinematic magnification and explosiveness.

Since each of her intended victims are members of Bill's Yakuza clan, the notorious "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad", they are superbly skilled and edged with homicidal madness. The Bride's task will not be accomplished with anything but the most wizardly swordplay.

The story is told out of sequence. Once she's shot and the titles are out of the way, we go to Pasadena, CA where she visits a modest frame house. When the door is opened, she's face to face with Copperhead, aka Vernita Green, a beautiful member of the deadly quintet now gone suburban with an adorable 4-year old girl. The ensuing battle is choreographic and destructive, fairly balanced in skill and deadliness, but halts in mid slice when the little girl returns home from school.

After a little palaver about when and where to meet for the final encounter, Copperhead tries to end the threat by shooting Black Mamba, but misses. There's no second chance. The Black finishes her quarry with a two edged knife. Returning to her car, we see her cross Copperhead off a list that already shows O-Ren Ishii, aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu) crossed off. So now, we need a jump back to find out how that encounter went down.

The Cottonmouth clash is a major set piece akin to Neo vs. 100 Smiths in "The Matrix Reloaded", but before that occurs we find her in Okinawa getting outfitted with a new weapon from legendary swordmaker Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), perhaps drawing another inspiration from "The Matrix's" keymaker, the mystery designer-provider.

How all this gets to be so long that it has been chopped into two parts (or aptly named "volumes") by Tarantino in commercial collusion with the distributor, Miramax, is by making each step toward Copperhead's journey of revenge a mini-movie, in rich detail, leaving no action stone unturned or story udder unmilked. It's enough to attenuate one's attention span but, from the mind of so stunningly theatrical a moviemaker as Tarantino, action fans will be locked in its head grip.

We've seen this story outline before, not only in "The Matrix" and its kin, but in any number of westerns that make clear distinctions between the betrayed good and the unscrupulous bad. If Tarantino looks to predecessors and contemporaries as mentors, the list is likely to include Sergio Leone, Kurosawa, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and John Ford, to suggest a few. As a translator of their fictional elements to modern dress and cinema's current state of art burnishments, Tarantino strikes a powerful chord for theatricality. His films are an escapist's refuge, and this is one of them.

His effectiveness stems also from his taste for visual emphasis. The cinematography, costume design and makeup all play into the Tarantino pallette of larger-than-life heroics, and are as fully realized as the action dynamics. The dialogue, while less talkative, is all the more powerful for being spare and unforced when the physical movement is registering as the story telling force.

This is a choice that pays off handsomely for the cast and, most especially, for Uma Thurman. She's a force to contend with, combining steely determination and uncompromised tenacity. Great looks with a tongue-in-cheek earnestness makes it a smashing performance in more ways than one. We don't get inside the heads of some of the other martial arts leads (not much in Thurman's either, but her drive tells us enough) and this vacancy is most telling in the major character of Liu's Cottonmouth. Frankly the buildup to her superhuman killing skills are a bit on the anemic side compared against what Black Mamba has been through in order to have the honor of clashing swords with her. Too aloof; too smug.

The blood spurting from severed limbs and heads is an unnecessary device that doesn't seem to belong to this picture ("Gladiator", perhaps?). The music is mostly from the '70s, deriving some chuckles and support from material chosen out of pop songs and film scores. The epic length of the piece is an unnatural stretch for the story. The presumption behind doing it in two parts should kill the bill, but it probably won't.

In a Tarantino movie, it seems, it's not the inner depths of the characters, it's not the peaks of exaggerated violence, it's not the seductive beauty of the women and colorful depravity of the men. It's the movie as a cinematic totality and as an homage to the best of the genre, comprised of every enveloping aspect of the medium to keep our heart rate up and our eyes fastened to the screen. It's also juiced-up cinema for an action-loving, adventure-appreciating audience -- one to which I belong.

See Volume 2

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Uma Thurman
"The Bride", code named "Black Mamba", in gold and steel

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