The first half of what was to have originally been a single film, "Kill Bill--Vol. 1" is a ferociously bloody martial arts revenge tale about a pregnant assassin (Thurman, credited only as "The Bride") who miraculously survives her own wedding-day massacre at the hands of former colleagues, only to awaken from a coma four years later with payback on her mind. Though the brunt of her wrath is aimed at the group's leader--the titular Bill ("Kung Fu's" David Carradine)--she sets her sights first on the so-called DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) of which she was once a part. In the film's most pivotal section, she journeys to Japan where she seeks out a legendary sword-maker ("The Street Fighter's" Sonny Chiba), preparatory to taking on the most ruthless of her DiVAS betrayers, a half-Japanese, half-Chinese, all-American girl-turned-Yakuza leader named O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).
Even those accustomed to Tarantino's rather graphic taste for sadism may be unprepared for the level of carnage that ensues, for the films on which Tarantino has drawn for his inspiration--Japanese samurai and Yakuza flicks of the '60s and '70s as well as Shaw Brothers Hong Kong swordplay and kung fu films of the same period--revel in a type of violence for which Hollywood has never had much of a constitution.
If some are utterly repulsed by such indulgence, others will glory in its pedigree, instantly spotting bits and pieces pillaged from the movies of legendary Japanese filmmakers like Hideo Gosha, Seijun Suzuki and the late, great Kinji Fukasaku--whose scandalous 2000 film "Battle Royale" (still unreleased in the U.S.) Tarantino honors by casting its star, Chiaki Kuriyama, in a rerun of her part as a lethal Japanese schoolgirl. References to Hong Kong pictures--which will presumably dominate "Kill Bill--Vol. 2"--find their way in as well--everything from "Master of the Flying Guillotine" to Bruce Lee's "Game of Death" to the Shaw Brothers classic "The Master Killer," the star of which, Gordon Liu, appears as the head of O-Ren Ishii's personal army (he also plays a white-haired kung fu master in "Kill Bill--Vol. 2"). There's even an extended animated sequence created by the pioneering Japanese anime house Production I.G. ("Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade," "Blood: The Last Vampire").
Less prominent but no less integral are a broad assortment of music cues, story fragments and stylistic signatures culled from Italian spaghetti westerns, American blaxploitation pictures, French New Wave films, Hollywood television series like "The Green Hornet" and even a nod or two to director Brian De Palma. It's the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from Tarantino--a confessed film geek whose work has always been more interpretive than formative--only on a scale vastly more ambitious than anything previously attempted. The Asian influences at which his earlier films only hinted are finally front and center and accorded a gravitas of which their makers would surely never have never dreamed. Even the routine revenge story--a staple of the kung fu, Yakuza and blaxploitation genres--is treated with more acute seriousness, unspooling in characteristically non-linear fashion.
There is no question that with "Kill Bill," Tarantino is aiming high--so high, in fact, that he may risk missing even his most loyal fans. Fortunately, many of the film's bases are covered; the casting of three major '70s martial arts icons of different nationalities (Carradine, Chiba and Gordon Liu) has built-in cult appeal while the picture's first-rate technical work and powerhouse performance from Uma Thurman should secure, at the very least, a respectable cache of Oscar nominations. Until that time, the movie will have to ride on its merits, hoping to impress people who may not even know for what merits to look. Starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Madsen and Julie Dreyfus. Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Lawrence Bender. A Miramax release. Action. Rated R for strong, bloody violence, language and some sexual content. Running time: 110 min