Tarantino is back with his most polished and yet slightly empty effort yet. 'Bill' is a kinetic and quite often stunning homage to those 70's kung fu flicks but combines many a genre and inspiration to deliver one of the more breathtaking B-movies in a long time. Certainly style wise this is hands down one of the most superb looking and intriguingly layed out films of the year. Right from the shocking opening shot to the various locales of the individual chapters, this is one of those films which changes not only its look but mood every few minutes and for the most part it works superbly.
Yet B-Movies themselves are noted for being flashy yet empty films trading onscreen style in favour of actually developing any kind of story. That rule applies here too - there really is no plot to speak of and little to no character development which sadly makes the fights somewhat empty despite all the swordplay and blood spraying. One of the few attempts is the third 'chapter' which delves into Liu's childhood but is all told in anime - the result is a gory cartoon which is sadly the film's flattest point (as anime it pails compared to the likes of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" or some of the stuff seen in "The Animatrix").
The result is charicatures - even our hero 'The Bride' whilst we totally understand her motivation, you don't root for her in the way one has for other characters of this type - its not a career defining performance in the way Uma's "Pulp Fiction" role was which is a shame, in fact something like Sharon Stone's lacklustre similar turn in "The Specialist" had more depth albeit considerably less chutzpah. Still, Thurman delivers solid work as does all the cast from Daryl Hannah looking absolutely gorgeous in her wacky outfit to Liu giving us a far more interesting performance than her "Charlie's Angels" films. All give it their all and the quality shows, others like Madsen and Carradine are glimpsed but not really involved so its too early to judge as yet.
This is violent and gory as all hell. Make no mistake about the slight 'comedy touches' glimpsed in the recent full-length trailer, those are very few and far between. This is pure revenge fantasy but with brutality too. A shooting at the start is amongst the most violent ever put onscreen and very cold. That's contrasted with blackly comic moments which are darkly funny and yet gorily icky whether it be the almost Monty Python-esque blood spraying like a geyser from severed limbs to a nice little payback against a rapist. This movie is all about brutality and is totally unrelenting to the point its very squirm inducing even when it goes black & white or in silhouette mode to avoid an NC-17 rating.
As the film is divided into five quite distinct chapters, each can be analysed on their own and its easier to do so. Without any doubt whatsoever, Chapter Five is this film's strength. The sequence (glimpsed in all the trailers) has Uma taking on Liu's several dozen yakuza minions in a Japanese club before delivering a really quite effective cliffhanger ending. This half hour is amongst my absolute favourite footage of the year - incredible fighting, an interesting array of characters (such as Liu's schoolgirl personal assassin Go Go Yubari), and a real guilty pleasure feeling of satisfaction. Almost all the rest of the film is pure setup, this is where the payoff begins and what royally sucks is that this is also where the first film ends.
The other four segments have their strengths too - the opening Vivica/Uma fight is a great sequence with a nice sense of the ridiculous and a clever twist. Also, the backstory of the Bride's coma is darkly funny and leads into one of the film's best gags involving an appendage. The third, the anime one, might be a drag on the film but it is still shocking. Finally number four starts with some nice comedic points but quickly delves into boredom with Sonny Chiba lovingly worshiping his swords and regretting having to make them again.
Music, production values, editing, etc. are all superbly done and refreshingly creative. Yet why do I sound hesitant? The simple fact is unlike say the "Matrix" films which are deliberately separate movies with a small bridge, this is truly one movie split in two of which we're just seeing the first half (so as a result this review will be updated when the second volume is seen). One has to wonder why this decision was made as one could easily have sat through a three-hour epic of this type. The split has rendered this 'volume' with the more difficult task of setting up the story, thus when the Liu vs. Thurman scene roles around we start seeing some real action and it makes everything preceeding it seem slightly pale even if the violence throughout is overt to the point of nausea at times (a lot will depend on how loud your theatre's sound system is).
That sheer level of violence will also keep a wide audience away - sure "Pulp Fiction" had its brutal moments, but they were icing on top of one of the more clever scripts of modern times with solid characters and a complex layout. The fights here however ARE what the film is, literally just the fights linked by ultra thin material albeit still ambitious in scope. Its young male adolescent fantasies gone wild and will definitely captivate fanboys, film geeks and Tarantino worshippers but won't have the crossover or rewatch appeal of 'Pulp' with the general public. Still, it is one of the more definitive films of the year however (I'm not a Tarantino fan either), and certainly worth checking out for its many moments of both fun and sheer gory shock value but somehow I get the feeling that seeing the two 'volumes' together will be more rewarding than just watching this admittedly dynamic opening half.