In his career as a mod maestro of recombinant pop, Quentin Tarantino has resurrected, and redefined, a great many things — John Travolta, of course, but also Robert Forster, ’60s surf rock, and the low-down dirty kick of blaxploitation. Still, I hardly think I would have believed that in Kill Bill — Vol. 1, his delirious splatter opera of cruelty and revenge, Tarantino could manage a similar feat of alchemy with Zamfir. That’s right: the pan-flute guy. In ”Kill Bill,” Zamfir pipes out ”The Lonely Shepherd,” a quaver of a ballad that sounds like the most haunting spaghetti Western score Ennio Morricone never wrote. It expresses the sadness, the loss, beneath the heroine’s violent quest — all of the emotion, in fact, that’s scarcely in the movie itself. Except that it IS in the movie: The music welds you to the images, to the decadent rapture of violence made lyrical. For a moment, I actually thought, Zamfir is God! You know the feeling: It’s the Quentin chemical reaction.
In ”Kill Bill,” Uma Thurman, wearing a sexy sneer of anger, smites her enemies without mercy or hesitation. In her flawless fury, she bites and stretches the lip of a rapist, goes knife-to-knife with Vivica A. Fox in a living-room brawl that looks like it might have come out of ”Foxy Brown 2000,” and then, with gleaming samurai sword in hand, she slices and dices an endless army of yakuza, leaping and twirling as she plunges her weapon into torsos and lops off limbs, the blood spurting like Hawaiian Punch. So single-minded is she in her rage, her will to dominate and destroy, that you could say — and you’d be right — that there isn’t much human dimension to ”Kill Bill.” Yet that doesn’t mean there’s nothing at stake. The film may be bloody, but it’s also bloody gorgeous: a grandly fetishized epic of cinematic aggression. It’s a tale of vengeance that hinges on Tarantino’s love of ferocity as spectacle — his immersion in action and exploitation, his addiction to the jazzy catharsis of junk-film kicks.
Thurman is the Bride, who wakes up after a four-year coma with a metal plate in her head, her limbs atrophied, her soul hardened by the murder of everyone at her El Paso wedding, including her unborn baby — a slaughter so evil that the movie, rather weirdly, makes no attempt to explain it. Who, exactly, is Bill (David Carradine), the honey-voiced cowboy mastermind of this appalling crime? (We never see his face.) And who are the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, who helped carry out the deed? We do see them, yet their motive remains blank. That it may be revealed in ”Kill Bill — Vol. 2,” due in February, scarcely removes the feeling that Tarantino has made a revenge film as perversely abstract as a first-person-shooter videogame. Back in 1994, ”Pulp Fiction” was a gangster fantasia with true danger because it dared to touch the third rail of life. ”Kill Bill” is just a funky, hermetic pulp bash.
Yet what a wizard Tarantino is! He hooks us from the get-go, with Nancy Sinatra singing ”Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” over a silhouette of the Bride in her hospital bed, and every scene that follows pulls us deeper into the filmmaker’s obsessiveness. When Daryl Hannah, as one of the Vipers, shows up with a deadly syringe, you wonder why she’s whistling, until the screen splits in two and the entire sequence — including that whistle — balloons into a parody of ”Dressed to Kill”-era De Palma. Later, in Japan, Tarantino uses the theme from ”The Green Hornet,” and he spotlights an insanely cheesy all-girl rock band, the 184.108.40.206’s, to escalate the mood of Tokyo-a-go-go as the camera winds through the House of Blue Leaves right before it becomes an elaborate killing floor.
Each sequence in ”Kill Bill” is like a detour that’s more fun than the main road. After meeting the treacherous Viper O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), we get her childhood story as a mesmerizing interlude of anime in which the gore erupts in geysers. By the time the Bride arrives in Okinawa to acquire a lethal blade from Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), the legendary swordsmith, her quest has become a crusade. ”I need Japanese steel,” says Thurman, in her most dramatic line reading, and Chiba, the Japanese B-movie veteran, fashions that steel for her in what feels like an act of consummation.
As O-Ren, Lucy Liu, speaking in the soft tones of an ironically polite dominatrix, has a drop-dead elegance, and she does some slicing and dicing of her own. When she and the Bride face off, there’s no girl-versus-girl cuteness: They’re warriors, pure and simple, and hypnotic ones. ”Kill Bill” may have little on its mind besides pop extravagance, yet you can feel the movie tracing a transition in the world — from West to East, from male to female rule. That’s Quentin chemistry too.