The opening credits insist Kill Bill: Volume 1 is "Quentin Tarantino's 4th film," when it's actually his 3.5th; it's too incomplete to be measured as a whole, half a movie waiting for a proper ending due to arrive in the next volume in February. Until then we'll have to contemplate something less fulfilling, and less filling, since this movie has been sliced with a blade -- cut in half, rendered a twitching corpse. Just when the movie gets going, when the rush of blood to the head kicks in and gallons of gore cover the screen, it just ends with an inglorious thunk. We're left wanting more, mainly because what we've seen didn't satisfy. Teases rarely do.
So we're left to wonder if it was worth the six-year gap between this and Jackie Brown, Tarantino's laid-back Elmore Leonard-adaptation-cum-blaxploitation homage, because this story of revenge doesn't achieve its goal -- Uma Thurman's Bride killing David Carradine's Bill, which doesn't give anything away if you've at all peeked at the movie poster. You're never invited into the film, only told to admire it from a distance. Marvel at its breathless fight sequences, the knife fight in a suburban home or the sword battle that pits Thurman against a hundred men in Green Hornet masks; delight in the copious references to movies Tarantino's seen (and made), most notably 1960s and '70s Hong Kong cinema and François Truffaut's 1968 revenge picture The Bride Wore Black; giggle at the blood that sprays from decapitated corpses like some Monty Python tribute; grin at the animated flashback sequence. That's where Tarantino thrives: in the spectacle of moviemaking, in the sheer pleasure of mishing and mashing sources 'til it looks (almost) brand-new. But the passion of filmmaking doesn't extend to the pleasure of filmgoing: We want some kind of closure, not a "coming soon" demanded by a studio that wants to make back its investment by twice reaching into our wallets.
In the end, what we get is a tale of revenge half-satisfied, and in typical Tarantino fashion, it is told out of sequence -- in flashbacks and flash-forwards, in a narrative that speeds forward then is jerked backward and takes a detour that distracts and delights all at once. Before the campy drive-in-grindhouse title credits (which inform us the movie's been shot in "ShawVision," an homage to the pioneering HK studio Shaw Brothers) we see Thurman's Bride being lectured to and executed by Carradine's Bill, heard but never seen in part one. Bill and his band of hired guns, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, have crashed the Bride's wedding and massacred the lot; the Bride's shot in the head and presumed dead. Her last breath is spent informing Bill that the baby she carries is his -- then, bang.
Kill Bill: Volume 1
It is four years later, and the church has been replaced by the placid Pasadena home belonging to Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), a former Viper like the Bride, whose real name is never uttered (it's bleeped out when mentioned, a wearyingly coy trick). The Bride has come to kill Vernita, but it's a fight cut short by the appearance of Vernita's small daughter. When she comes in the front door, opened to reveal a destroyed den, the women hide their blades -- a small joke drowned in the blood spilled in front of the little girl. Tarantino's perhaps hinting at a sequel/remake: The Bride tells the girl she never meant to off her mommy in front of her, but if, when she grows up, she still feels raw about it, "I'll be waiting." It's also the only moment in the movie that means anything: It does indeed feel raw, more than a little devastating. In a movie filled with so much carnage, so many dozens of body parts separated from their owners, it's a single knife to a chest that does the most damage.
Then we're sent back in time, to the Bride laid out on a hospital bed, where she's been used as a screw toy by the male nurse and any pal of his who has $75 to pop on the coma victim. She's nearly done in a second time by Daryl Hannah's one-eyed killer -- an homage to the 1974 Swedish film Thriller, notorious for its blending of violence and hard-core porn -- but spared by Bill, who doesn't want to lower himself to a rat's level. The Bride escapes to Okinawa, where she seeks the legendary maker of indestructible swords, Hattori Hanzo, played by Shaw Brothers immortal Sonny Chiba. Then it's off to find O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), another Viper on the Bride's list of victims and perhaps the most brutal -- a woman who will end a meeting by collecting the head of anyone who doubts her authority or ability.
The final showdown with O-Ren and her many minions is as stylized as any Helmut Newton photo shoot; it's even presented in black and white and then in silhouette, perhaps to calm the Motion Picture Association of America into giving the movie an R rating. (Otherwise, it would have been a red sea.) And though it's a blast to watch, it becomes tiresome over the long haul -- 25 minutes of Thurman hacking her way through the crowd to get to a woman whose fate we're informed of early on. It's the most climactic anticlimax in recent film history, a no-duh coda awaiting the ending it really deserves but never gets. Not this year, anyway.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.