The 4th film from Quentin Tarantino, the opening credits tell us, with balls the size of watermelons. It’s here that Tarantino starts to recognise his own legacy. Not only is he numbering his films – surely the first sign of his subsequent plan of only directing ten films – but it’s with Kill Bill that he starts to litter the Tarantino-verse with references to his earlier works.
In the film’s first post-credits scene, Uma Thurman’s character (‘The Bride’ AKA Beatrix Kiddo) arrives at Vernita Green’s house, her first target for revenge. With their knife-fight interrupted by Green’s daughter returning from school, the two call a temporary truce and head to the kitchen for coffee. There, the Bride explains how she’ll first kill Green, then her daughter and then her husband. “That’ll be even Vernita…that’ll be about square.” As she says that last word, she traces the outline of a square in the air with her right hand. The gesture is surely a reference to Thurman’s earlier character in the Tarantinoverse, Mia Wallace from 1994’s Pulp Fiction. In that film, on her night out with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, she tells him not to be a square, again tracing the outline of a square – which Tarantino sneakily overlays with a rectangle in post-production.
Even Thurman’s character in Kill Bill is described in dialogue by Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace nine years earlier. She explains to Vega how she once appeared in a failed TV pilot, whose characters almost perfectly describe the Bride and her former team of assassins:
MIA: It was a show about a team of secret agents called Fox Force Five.
MIA: Fox Force Five. Fox, as in we’re a bunch of foxy chicks. Force, as in we’re a force to be reckoned with. Five, as in there’s one…two…three…four…five of us. There was a blonde on, Sommerset O’Neal, from that show Baton Rouge, she was the leader. A Japanese one, a black one, a French one, and a brunette one, me. We all had special skills. Sommerset had a photographic memory, the Japanese fox was a kung-fu master, the black girl was a demolition expert, the French fox’s specialty was sex…
VINCENT: What was your specialty?
MIA: Knives. The character I played, Raven McCoy, her background was she was raised by circus performers. So she grew up doing a knife act. According to the show, she was the deadliest woman in the world with a knife. But because she grew up in a circus, she was also something of an acrobat. She could do illusions, she was a trapeze artist – when you’re keeping the world safe from evil, you never know when being a trapeze artist’s gonna come in handy.
And the references to the Tarantinoverse don’t end there. Michael Parks’ world-weary sheriff is surely the same character he played in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, we glimpse Michael Madsen in a black suit a la 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, and the boardroom rant by Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii echoes Pulp Fiction’s opening rant by Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny (“Any of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!”).
But the casting of Sonny Chiba as master swordsmith Hattori Hanzō is perhaps Tarantino’s greatest coup. In what must have been a dream come true for the director, the casting of Chiba refers back to one of Tarantino’s earliest scripts. In 1993’s True Romance, written by Tarantino but directed by Tony Scott, Christian Slater’s Clarence meets Patricia Arquette’s Alabama at an all-night theatre, watching a Sonny Chiba triple-feature (“The Streetfighter, Return Of The Streetfighter, and Sister Streetfighter”).
I remember seeing Kill Bill Vol.1 at the cinema and being blown away. But each time I’ve seen it since, I’ve always felt it to be a little bloated, not as much as it’s Vol. 2 companion piece, but there’s definitely some breathing space put into each scene.
That first segment with Vernita Green, post fight, is perhaps the slowest scene in the entire film. We’re finding out a little bit about what has happened to bring the Bride here, but it’s the one time I wish Tarantino had followed a linear storyline by putting the hospital scenes first. Strangely, the Vernita scene and the hospital scene played out of order is essentially the only non-linear aspect of the narrative, excluding the flashbacks to the wedding.
The split-screen over Bernard Herrmann’s Twisted Nerve as Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver changes into her nurse’s uniform is fantastic, and goes hand in hand as the most cinematic moment of the film with the later scene scored with Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor Or Humanity as the Bride speeds off on her bike and O-Ren Ishii walks into the House Of Blue Leaves.
One break-out star of Kill Bill is somebody who goes largely unnoticed in the film, but whose contributions are priceless: Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell. The nature of the fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping led Tarantino and his Western crew into a different way of working. Schedules were abandoned and sequences were added or deleted to better suit the narrative. The change in mindset led to another important decision: the promotion of Bell from a low-tier ‘crash and smash’ stuntwoman to a full-on stunt double for Thurman. The shoot thrust her into the (face-covered) limelight, but left her with broken ribs and a dislocated wrist.
Tarantino stuck with her and she subsequently appeared as either an actress or stuntwoman in all of his subsequent films. I met her at the New Zealand premiere of The Hateful Eight in January 2016 where she was kind enough to sign my copies of Death Proof and The Hateful Eight. In hindsight, I should have asked her to autograph everything from Kill Bill onwards, given her impact on the Tarantinoverse.
The Kill Bill films mark Tarantino’s first musical collaboration with another artist, RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, who contributed score elements and also acted as co-producer of the soundtrack alongside Tarantino and Lawrence Bender. About a dozen or so tracks were left off the accompanying soundtrack, either used in the film or in its promotional material and so an expanded soundtrack one day is a definite possibility. My only gripe is that so much is left of the resulting soundtrack to fit in all ten and a half minutes of Santa Esmeralda’s nauseatingly camp cover of the Animals’ arrangement of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (it’s the Animals version of the song, rather than the Nina Simone original, as the European disco group also recorded a version of House Of The Rising Sun).
Hit: Twisted Nerve – Bernard Herrmann
Hidden Gem: Run Fay Run – Isaac Hayes