Since 1994, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction has been widely regarded as commercial filmdom's most stylistically—senselessly—violent movie (possibly vying for top honors with Natural Born Killers). It set the standard for brutality and blood lust. It also inspired multitudes of gory rip-offs. Here is my point: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 makes Pulp Fiction look like a Disney flick. (Not that that's a terribly good analogy since both Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are Disney releases by way of Mouse subsidiary Miramax Films.)
Uma Thurman plays The Bride (aka Black Mamba), an elite assassin who is betrayed by her boss and colleagues. At her wedding, they move in and kill everyone she loves, and leave her with a bullet in her brain. Awaking from a coma four years later, she instantly begins plotting retribution. She makes a literal list of the ones responsible, then systematically checks them off—killing them to do so. (Vol. 1 ends halfway through the list.)
There is only one life that Black Mamba values—that of her unborn child.
The mystical "combat" creed Black Mamba subscribes to includes the phrase, "Kill whoever stands in my way, even if that be the Lord God or Buddha." Convinced that her vigilante vengeance is sanctioned by God, Black Mamba says, "You begin to believe that not only does God exist, but that you are doing His will." A sword maker says he made an oath to God that he would never again craft a sword destined to be a murder weapon. Once he decides Black Mamba's cause is just, however, he breaks that vow and creates for her his finest sword ever, a weapon he says would "cut God" if He got in its way.
It's learned that while comatose, Black Mamba was sexually violated by an orderly. This orderly also sold the right to rape her to friends for $75 apiece. Moviegoers are privy to this sordid information because she wakes up right before a man comes in for his "turn." The orderly's pickup truck is emblazoned with a vulgar sexual slogan. During an animated segment, an 11-year-old girl climbs into bed with a pedophile so that she can kill him. When a young man admits he wants to have sex with one female fighter, she stabs him to death. Several scenes include obscene dialogue relating to sex and sexual organs.
"Somebody else's violence is my action," insists Tarantino. "There's no disgrace in trying to kill people in the coolest way possible—especially if you're doing a martial arts movie. ... I wanted to think up every way I could have [Black Mamba] disband and put an end [to her enemies]." And as limbs fall and heads roll, blood spurts. But it doesn't spurt the way you've ever seen it spurt in any movie before this one. It blasts out of mangled torsos as if they were fire hydrants opened up for a four-alarm. In a climactic scene, Black Mamba takes on 88 assailants, all of whom end up dead, dying or (if they're very lucky) merely dismembered. Victoriously perched high on a balcony railing, Black Mamba calls down to the moaning survivors, "Those of you who still have your lives, take them with you and depart. But leave your severed limbs. They belong to me!"
Gory animated depictions of killings compete with live action as everything from bullets to swords to axes to kitchen knives are used to end lives. A 9-year-old girl's parents are slaughtered while she hides under a bed. Black Mamba kills another woman (a thrown knife lodges in her heart) while her 4-year-old stands in the doorway. She bites a man's tongue off. She bashes in another's skull with a door. Using her sword, she turns the 88 trained killers into mincemeat. She lops off the top part of Tokyo crime boss O-Ren Ishii's head (a lingering shot has O-Ren Ishii—brains exposed—using her dying breath to praise Black Mamba's sword). Before that, O-Ren Ishii decapitates a disrespectful underling (blood gushes upwards from his neck as his head rolls across the table). Black Mamba uses a board with nails in it to kill one attacker (a woman dressed as a schoolgirl), driving the nails into her forehead. Her enemy uses a spiked ball-and-chain weapon to pummel, cut and strangle her. Flashbacks show Black Mamba and her wedding party getting riddled with bullets.
As hinted at by O-Ren Ishii's final words, there is only one thing that is treated respectfully—even reverently—in Kill Bill: samurai swords. Black Mamba has one made for her by a man believed to be the best craftsman in the world. Frenetic pacing slows when a sword enters the frame, the music lilts, pulses quicken and eyes widen. Adoration for swords is a unifying and nearly spiritual experience for all those who own them.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 20 f-words and 10 s-words. Men and women are referred to by the cruelest, most obscene words possible, words so taboo this review cannot even hint at them. God's name is combined with profanities a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Black Mamba orders sake. Others guzzle from bottles and down hard liquor at a private club. A few characters smoke cigarettes. An animated one chomps on a cigar. Booze is used to start a fire.
Other Negative Elements
Tarantino brags that his film elevates "girl power" and tips its hat to the way (he thinks) women should hold their own in the world. To the contrary, Kill Bill demeans, degrades and devalues women at every turn. They're portrayed as vengeful, heartless beasts, bent on death and destruction. Men nearly always fall victim to their physical and mental superiority, and this is why the director falsely believes he's honoring them. What, in fact, he's doing is opening them up to contempt and abuse. Elsewhere, an ethnic slur is directed toward the Japanese.
Kill Bill functions as a colorful, creative, pulpy homage to, primarily, Hong Kong kung-fu movies. From costuming (the yellow-and-black jumpsuit Uma Thurman wears while slicing through the 88 attackers looks exactly like the one Bruce Lee wore in his last movie, Game of Death) to plot line (a severely wronged martial artist wreaks havoc on her enemies), Tarantino consciously evokes the "romance" of martial arts theatrics, hoping to coax the genre's huge fan base out of the 20th century. He's also hoping to lure them into witnessing one of the bloodiest spectacles ever. Tarantino says he used more than 100 gallons of fake blood to create the effect he wanted.
Village Voice film critic RJ Smith called Kill Bill "probably the most violent movie ever made by an American studio." Not that teens are being taught to care. "You want to see this, right?" MTV's Kurt Loder wrote to his youthful audience. "Of course you do. ... Obviously, there are many people who would find all of this deeply offensive and indefensible. I don't know any of them, however, and they shouldn't be going to see a movie like this anyway."
Tarantino took it one step further. "If you are a 12-year-old girl or boy, you must go and see Kill Bill and you will have a d--n good time," he crowed. "Boys will have a great time, girls will have a dose of girl power. If you are a cool parent out there, go take your kids to the movie." Ugh. Afterwards, why don't you swing by the Colosseum to watch the lions tear apart a few gladiators? After viewing Tarantino's movie, the callousness and shallowness he expressed in this quote doesn't surprise me, but it still turns my stomach. When asked if he thinks he might have crossed the line this time, Tarantino responded, "Well, um, what line would that be?"
Co-star Lucy Liu, though, contends, "It's so violent people will leave the movie theater or get sick in the movie theater." She's right about the level of violence. But she missed the latest memos on how people—numbed to onscreen murder by years of increasing body counts—react to gore. At the screening I attended, people weren't retching or fleeing ... they were laughing. Laughing. I think that makes me more nauseated than having to watch Liu's head get chopped in half.