I've been waiting for 'Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair' to come out on DVD, Blu-ray -- hell, even Betamax since the day I saw Vol. 1. Not to be a total cliché, but Quentin Tarantino was a galvanizing force in my transformation from movie lover to true cinephile, and the prospect of pouring over even more little details in his puree of pop culture influences and inspirations has excited me since the day I knew such a version of the film existed. All of which is why the announcement that Tarantino would be hosting a run of 'The Whole Bloody Affair' at the New Beverly Cinema, the Los Angeles repertory house he rescued from being shuttered, felt like an especially exciting turn of events, not the least of which because its release (in any format) started to feel like it might never happen.
Mind you, the cut that Tarantino premiered at Cannes – and is being shown at the New Beverly through April 7 via the same print – features slightly different content in both volumes, which probably means that I'm not actually "revisiting" the same film that I saw in 2003 and '04. But the question that nevertheless remains is whether 'Kill Bill,' in any incarnation, has the same energy, the same impact as it once did. And so, 'The Whole Bloody Affair' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released Oct. 10, 2003, 'Kill Bill Vol. 1' was an enormous success by itself, earning more than $180 million worldwide at the box office and various nominations and awards to boot. Uma Thurman was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as The Bride, and the film received ten nominations from the Online Film Critics Society. It still enjoys an 85 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
'Kill Bill Vol. 2' was released on April 16, 2004, and like its predecessor, it was also a significant hit, earning more than $152 million during its theatrical run. Thurman was nominated again for Best Actress at the Golden Globes, and was joined by David Carradine, who received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It too also enjoys aan 85 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: As an unwieldy combination of an "Eastern" and a Western, 'Kill Bill' pretty brilliantly juggles its genre influences to create a piece that's visceral, immediate, suspenseful, reflective, and most of all, genuinely felt. The opening shot -- even the opening audio -- of Uma Thurman as The Bride, gasping for breath after being beaten within an inch of her life, revealing that her child belongs to the man who is putting a bullet in her head, does literally all of the work necessary to establish the character's desire, if not need, for revenge, but it also makes her an underdog, even if she is gifted with enough fight training to take out a small army -- or as we later see, the entirety of the Crazy 88's. From there, the film engages in brutal violence, balletic choreography, and ritualistic showdowns, but they're all built on a foundation of emotional substance, and yet effortlessly balance feeling with urgency, and intensity.
The first great example of this is in the first fight scene with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). After The Bride and Vernita turn Vernita's living room into a battleground, they stand poised for the next confrontation as a school bus pulls up in front of the house – which the audience sees through the massive picture window that reveals their fight to the world, if it was watching. Vernita and The Bride are still prepared to eviscerate each other, but Vernita wordlessly appeals to The Bride to let up, if only for a moment, so that she can speak to her daughter, Nikki, who just got off the bus and is quickly approaching the front door. When Nikki enters, Vernita and The Bride both hide their weapons, and Vernita protectively changes her tone of voice, even instructing Nikki not to enter the room because there's broken glass that could cut her – never mind the stab wounds and blood running out of her mouth from the battle which raged just moments before.
That Tarantino builds suspense by introducing Nikki is itself a smart and understated choice, but he manages to work it into their confrontation, even allowing the two to discuss their differences, as the scene effectively combines physical action, expository information, and emotional dimensionality to both characters' goals. These aren't merely two fierce adversaries acting out some brilliant choreography, but battling for stakes that actually mean something, even though it's only the first major sequence of the film.
The differences between the original cut of 'Kill Bill Vol. 1' and the 'Whole Bloody Affair' cut are negligible in terms of story, with one exception: Tarantino removes Bill's line of dialogue to Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) asking whether The Bride knows that her daughter is still alive. Although a tantalizing bit of information to entice audiences to return for Vol. 2 when it was scheduled for release six months later, it telegraphs the emotional impact of The Bride (by then Beatrix Kiddo) discovering that her daughter is in fact alive, and in retrospect (or maybe by comparison) undermines the cohesiveness of these visceral and emotional elements of the story by the time you've watched her battle her way through (literally) hundreds of foes en route to Bill.
Watching the two installments together, and even knowing that piece of information as any longtime fan surely would, there's a cumulative impact that the withholding of that information provides when it's finally revealed, really sort of confirming Tarantino's pedigree not only as a scenarist but a storyteller. Otherwise, the added details in both volumes primarily add up to small flourishes of violence, including a lot more severed appendages in the House of Blue Leaves sequence, and of course the fact that it also unfolds in color for the first time.
Meanwhile, what else works about both volumes is the same as it always was: Tarantino's seeming exercise of his abilities to render an effective (much less show-stopping, knock-down, drag-out) action sequence with the House of Blue Leaves segment, his virtuoso exploration of this character's feelings via these many glorious set pieces, and certainly not least of all, his shockingly effective and seamless combination of so many different influences, genres and filmmaking styles into something not just coherent, but truly compelling, on every level. Genre pastiche had certainly become more commonplace in the time since Tarantino made his industry-breaker 'Pulp Fiction,' but he proved that no one could do it better, grander or more effectively.
What Doesn't Work: As a single (if still two-part) film, there are sequences which add color to the overall tapestry, but seem overlong, if not altogether unnecessary, even if at this point it almost feels impossible to imagine the film(s) without them. The best example of these is the extended digression into the depressing life of Budd (Michael Madsen), Bill's brother, who works as a bouncer and a janitor in the most woefully underpopulated strip club in Texas; without the scenes of Larry Bishop berating him in between inhaling lines of cocaine, would 'Vol. 2' be less of a film, or Beatrix's story be less powerful? Not at all.
Additionally, it seems to reveal Bill's penchant for the dramatic more than anything else, but his story about the Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique could probably also be excised, and the relevant information (namely, the technique's epic existence) communicated in some other way. And finally, I have always felt like Bill's monologue about Superman in the final sequence was unnecessarily long, since by that point we're eager to see the two of them confront one another in whatever way they're going to, and another discussion of pop culture at that point -- or at least one that goes so far out of its way to make its point - takes away from the emotional thrust of the conflict between Bill and Beatrix. Tarantino has always indulged his dialogue, and indeed, his unique sense of pacing – more than sometimes works for his films (see much of the first hour of 'Death Proof' for further examples), and the relevant information in these moments could be communicated with equal effectiveness but greater efficiency, especially since at its full length 'Kill Bill' runs more than four hours.
As I said above, however, these are moments that have since become integral parts of these films, and they're now more or less essential to the fabric of the narrative, if only to flesh out its sprawling tapestry of characters and their stories. And efficiency isn't something that Tarantino has been interested in, and maybe he shouldn't be. But at four hours, in a story that was originally meant to be a nasty and short little tale of revenge, could some of this material have been excised or slimmed down? Absolutely.
What's The Verdict: 'Kill Bill' holds up in any version, but 'The Whole Bloody Affair' is definitive, and ultimately the superior (if not only) way to see these films. What I was most surprised by was the fact that even at 100 minutes, 'Vol. 1' actually feels longer in this iteration than 'Vol. 2,' which still runs at 145 or so, because it's all part of a single piece, rather than component parts of a saga or miniseries of some kind. It should be noted that even as 'The Whole Bloody Affair,' the film features an intermission that occurs cleanly between volumes 1 and 2, indicating that the choice to separate them was made much earlier than reports suggested at the time of the production. But for this viewer, there is no other way now to see 'Kill Bill' than in this form, because its narrative, visceral and emotional impact has never been more cohesive, or powerful.