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Quentin Tarantino's films revisited: Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)


In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we're recapping all his previous films.

Following last week's recap of Jackie Brown, we're taking a closer look at Tarantino's gleefully gory homage to B-movie martial arts and kung fu movies: Kill Bill: Volume 1.

What is the story of Kill Bill: Volume 1?

In this typically non-linear story, we begin with the apparent execution of The Bride (Uma Thurman) at her wedding. She's shot in the head while pregnant by her former mentor Bill (David Carradine), betrayed by both him and her former compatriots.

The story then criss-crosses past and present as The Bride's 'rip-roaring rampage of revenge' begins to take shape. In her quest to hunt down and Kill Bill, she must first eliminate all those traitors who stand in her way, including the likes of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Let the carnage commence...

How did Kill Bill: Volume 1 get made?

Remarkably, six years had passed since acclaimed crime drama Jackie Brown – so where was Quentin Tarantino during this time? Arguably the most feted auteur director in Hollywood, the film-maker had set an impossibly high bar for himself, following the generation-defining trio of Brown, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

But far from resting on his laurels, Tarantino was instead preparing to cut loose and have some fun with a feature-length homage to the grisly exploitation movies of his youth. In contrast to the critically acclaimed trio of movies that preceded it, Kill Bill was denounced by some as the moment where a talented film-maker got too big for his boots, regressing into self-indulgent schlock at the expense of the audience – but more on that momentarily.

If Reservoir Dogs riffed on the non-linear crime movie, then Pulp Fiction was a self-referential statement on the transgressive pleasure of sleazy pulp entertainment. But Jackie Brown was, in the eyes of many, a mature step up. Not just a post-modern pastiche of Tarantino's beloved pulp cinema, it had heft, derived from Elmore Leonard's source novel Rum Punch and a commanding central performance from Pam Grier.

Kill Bill, by contrast, was a clear indication of a film-maker not kow-towing to the critics and audiences who helped elevate him to iconic status. Instead this was a movie made first and foremost for its creator – should audiences and critics learn to appreciate the film's frames of reference, then fair enough.

And, as is usual with Tarantino, said frames of reference are manifold and complex. The story of Kill Bill moves away from crime and Blaxploitation into the limb-lopping, artery-spurting violence of grisly Asian 'grindhouse' cinema prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including 1973's Lady Snowblood, not to mention anime (which occupies a sequence midway through the film).

In an example of Tarantino's proximity to the material, he begins Kill Bill with a logo for the Shaw Brothers Studio, a real-life outlet famous for its martial arts films. A more implicit reference comes in the form of star Uma Thurman's characteristic yellow tracksuit: this refers to the legendary Bruce Lee's get-up in 1972's Game of Death. Spaghetti Western iconography is also threaded into the movie, as it was in the likes of Pulp Fiction.

However, the roots of Kill Bill in fact stretched back to 1994's Pulp Fiction, on which Tarantino collaborated with Thurman for the first time. It was at this point that he worked with Thurman to conceive the character of The Bride, eventually writing it between the years 2000 and 2001. He developed the script while spending time with Thurman and her daughter, emotional overtones that eventually worked their way into the Volume 1 script before flourishing in Volume 2.

(The initial start date was in fact delayed by Thurman's pregnancy. "If Josef Von Sternberg is getting ready to make Morocco and Marlene Dietrich gets pregnant, he waits for Dietrich," said Tarantino at the time, referring to their celebrated 1930s collaborations on the likes of The Blue Angel.)

The film had an unusually large budget by Tarantino standards. At $55 million, it was clear the director was being given carte blanche to indulge his wildest cinematic fantasies – hardly a surprise given the variously critical, commercial and award-winning successes of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.

In contrast to his linguistically rich earlier movies, Kill Bill instead placed greater emphasis on physical mayhem and violent set-piece stunts. The movie drew on the expertise of esteemed Matrix choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, who helped Tarantino stage some of his most visually audacious and elaborate sequences so far. One of the most impressive examples was the House of Blue Leaves fight sequence between The Bride and the forces of O-Ren Ishii, otherwise known as the Crazy 88.

Throughout this sequence and others, Tarantino and his crew favoured practical blood effects above CGI. As he said at the time: "Let's pretend we're little kids and we're making a Super 8 movie in our back yard, and you don't have all this s**t. How would you achieve this effect? Ingenuity is important here!"

Disaster struck when Thurman, in the midst of a stunt sequence, crashed a car into a tree. Reluctant to undertake the stunt to begin with, she was compelled to do so at Tarantino's behest, resulting in a concussion and damage to her knees. This led to a fracturing of their relationship in subsequent years.

Interestingly, the movie was never conceived as a two-parter – despite its non-linear structure, the movie was shot in order, but producer Harvey Weinstein was concerned about Kill Bill's presentation as a single three-hour epic. Tarantino was then compelled to split the project down the middle, Volume 1 released in 2003, and Volume 2 in 2004. However, this split structure did allow Tarantino to retain everything he had shot, with relatively little hitting the cutting room floor.

Tarantino told IGN: "I'm talking about scenes that are some of the best scenes in the movie, but in this hurdling pace where you're trying to tell only one story, that would have been the stuff that would have had to go. But to me, that's kind of what the movie was, are these little detours and these little grace notes."

What songs are on the Kill Bill soundtrack?

Given its cornucopia of movie references, the Kill Bill soundtrack is one of the most diverse and entertaining in Quentin Tarantino's canon. The Spaghetti Western influence is well served by Ennio Morricone's propulsive 'Death Rides a Horse' from the 1965 movie of the same name. It's used during the sequence where The Bride confronts O-Ren Ishii for the first time since her attempted murder.

Unsurprisingly, both J-pop staples and martial arts scores are present and correct. The former is represented by the likes of Japanese 'go-go' group The's, and Tomoyasu Hotei's punchy 'Battle Without Honour or Humanity' became the movie's signature theme. A driving piece for aggressive brass and electric guitar, it sums up the remorseless Bride's march towards her end goal, and packs a real punch.

Other typically diverse offerings include Bernard Herrmann's 'Twisted Nerve', Nancy Sinatra's 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' and even Quincy Jones's opening theme music from detective series Ironside. As usual with Tarantino, the music crosses the diegetic and non-diegetic planes – as in, sometimes the music we hear is performed in the context of a given scene, whereas at other times it exists outside of it.

An example of the former comes in the presence of the aforementioned's, who are heard performing tracks such as 'Woo Hoo' within The House of Blue Leaves.

What are some classic quotes from Kill Bill: Volume 1?

O-Ren Ishii: "Silly rabbit. Tricks are for kids."

The Bride: "Those of you lucky enough to still have their lives, take them with you! However, leave the limbs you've lost. They belong to me now...except you Sofie!"

Hattori Hanzo: "I am finished doing what I swore an oath to God 28 years ago to never do again. I've created, 'something that kills people'. And in that purpose, I was a success. I've done this because, philosophically, I am sympathetic to your aim. I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword. If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut."

Buck: "That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die."

How was Kill Bill: Volume 1 received?

It had been a long time since a director had burst out of the traps quite like Quentin Tarantino. The sheer weight of critical and commercial prestige afforded to his first three films catapulted the director into the Hollywood stratosphere – the world was at his feet, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would look inwards and decide to make a movie first and foremost for himself.

For that reason, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was the first Tarantino movie to sharply divide critics and audiences down the middle – not unlike the many victims faced by Thurman's avenging Bride. BBC Radio Five Live's pre-eminent film critic Mark Kermode was among those expressing frustration, saying Tarantino had lost sight of what made his initial films so striking, provocative and thought-provoking.

On the other hand, the movie found many supporters who praised the audacity and idiosyncrasy of Tarantino's vision. Among its champions was the late, great Roger Ebert, who raved: "Kill Bill: Volume 1 shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through 'Flight of the Bumble Bee' – or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for 'Lady of Spain'. I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humour of its making. It's kind of brilliant."

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
is released on 14th August, so tweet us @Cineworld with your favourite Tarantino movies.