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(2003) (Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu) (R)

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Action/Adventure: A highly trained assassin sets out to find and kill those who wiped out her wedding party and left her in a coma for four years.
It's been four years since a highly trained but pregnant assassin known as Black Mamba (UMA THURMAN) had her leader and former lover, Bill (DAVID CARRADINE), turn his other assassins loose on her at her wedding. With the rest of the party brutally killed, Bill let her live, but she slipped into and stayed in a coma until now.

Once out of it, she decides to get her revenge on the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that includes Vernita Green (VIVICA A. FOX), Elle Driver (DARYL HANNAH), Sidewinder (MICHAEL MADSEN) and O-Ren Ishii (LUCY LIU). The latter is first on her list, but considering her formidable assistant, Sophie Fatale (JULIE DREYFUSS), and deadly bodyguard, Go Go Yubari (CHIAKI KURIYAMA), Black Mamba knows she'll have the fight of her life on her hands.

Yet, with the aid of master Japanese swordsman, Hattori Honzo (SONNY CHIBA), she picks her weapon and sets out to kill Bill and the rest of his squad.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although this doesn't necessarily apply to all young filmmakers, if often seems that many of them don't have much knowledge or appreciation of cinema history. They simply and often inexplicably "graduate" from making music videos to helming big budget feature films.

If nothing else were to be said about Quentin Tarantino, one must certainly acknowledge that he's obviously teaming with a plethora of knowledge about all things film. Of course, he's no newcomer to the business - such reverence was present even in his early days - and has delivered some fantastic ("Pulp Fiction") and rather good ("Jackie Brown," "Reservoir Dogs") efforts over the years.

Such film knowledge, references and homage continue in his latest film, "Kill Bill." A violent, occasionally enthralling, and sometimes goofy homage to all sorts of genres - but most notably Hong Kong action flicks, Japanese samurai pictures and Western revenge films - the title comes with the appendage, "Vol. 1." That's due to it being just the first half of what was originally a singular, three-hour picture.

There have been various theories and statements explaining the split, but methinks it's probably financially based. Since moviegoers will have to pony up for this and "Vol. 2," that means twice the revenue for what was initially just one film. With repeat viewers for both versions, that means a lot of extra moola (there's no word yet about how the DVD version will be handled).

Of course, maybe the split decision will make sense in 2004 when the second half is released. Whatever the case, the offering must still stand up to the usual critical scrutiny as presented. While diehard Tarantino fans and aficionados of Hong Kong action flicks will probably think this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, others will probably have varied reactions.

Some will laugh at the "in" jokes (of the many to choose from) or the purposefully ridiculous nature of some of the violence and copious spilling (and shooting, squirting and fire hydrant style gushing) of blood. On the other hand, some viewers will likely see this as signs of a pretentious filmmaker at work who's so infatuated with his creation that he can't trim any of it.

If anything, the film is clearly all style and very little substance. Granted, such style is often mesmerizing and exhilarating to behold as Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson ("The Four Feathers," "Snow Falling on Cedars") have crafted some memorably "cool" scenes. There's even an entire anime segment - devoted to telling the back story of one character - for fans of that style of animation.

True to form, the director has also hired Hong Kong director Yuen Wo Ping to choreograph the film's various fight scenes, some of which utilize the dreaded wire fighting that's never impressed me and has worn out its welcome through overuse of recent.

Tarantino also often zips the camera around in exaggerated fashion to emulate similar moves in those old flicks and utilizes various vintage sound effects for dramatic and comedic purposes. As in his other films, he's also raided the golden oldies vault for vintage songs. Combined with the often stunning visuals, they create the film's signature moments.

While the filmmaker's script also jumps around in a non-linear fashion like his other works, the effect isn't as fun, clever or ultimately necessary as in "Pulp Fiction," et al. There's no reason for revenge killing number two to be shown before number one other than Tarantino presumably thinking that out of order storytelling is still cool. What it does do is ruin the "suspense" of the second and more substantial revenge sequence since we then already know the outcome of the first via a scratched off check list.

The film is clearly missing the engaging plot, dialogue and characters that made his previous works stand out. The revenge story is about as simplistic as they come and struggles to provide enough material to fill the film's 90-some minute runtime (we'll have to wait and see if the same holds true the second time around). There's certainly no denying that various scenes could have been cut down or entirely omitted with no ill effect.

Rather than all of the homage and inside jokes, perhaps Tarantino should have focused more on the plot and characters. That's especially true since one assumes we're automatically supposed to root for Uma Thurman's character to kick some vindictive butt.

The fact that her wedding party was annihilated and she was left in a coma four years earlier (repeatedly seen in flashback) just isn't enough to elicit or build viewer sympathy and/or enthusiasm toward her goal. Thurman ("The Avengers," "Gattaca") looks great in the role and has the physical part down pat. Yet, hers is such a one-note character that she could appear in the title role of the next "Terminator" film.

Lucy Liu ("Chicago," the "Charlie's Angles" films) plays the second (or is it first) intended target, Sonny Chiba ("The Storm Riders," "Aces: Iron Eagle III") does the sword maker/master bit, and Chiaki Kuriyama ("Battle Royale," "Shikoku") portrays a unique bodyguard.

The rest of the major cast, however, that includes Vivica A. Fox ("Boat Trip," "Two Can Play That Game"), Daryl Hannah ("A Walk to Remember," the "Grumpy Old Men" films), Michael Madsen ("My Boss's Daughter," "Die Another Day") and the never fully seen David Carradine ("Bound For Glory," TV's "Kung Fu") -- as the title character - aren't given a great deal of screen time. I guess we'll also have to wait a few months to see how the surviving characters fare.

In essence, and notwithstanding the massive style over substance issue, that's the film's biggest problem. It simply stops midstream following the culmination of a very long battle sequence. Again, while diehard aficionados will probably be salivating over the next installment, others will likely feel gypped, manipulated and/or used by the stop in the middle, split movie ploy (even if they know it's designed that way).

Certainly rarely boring to behold and occasionally mesmerizing from a pure visual standpoint, but missing the plot, characters and dialogue that have made Tarantino's films stand out in the past, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" feels incomplete in more ways than one. It rates as just a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 3, 2003 / Posted October 10, 2003

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