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Everything You Need To Know About 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' For Its 20th Anniversary

By Brian Richards | Film | October 20, 2023 |

By Brian Richards | Film | October 20, 2023 |


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After the success of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, people wanted to know what would be next from writer-director Quentin Tarantino. Would it be The Vega Brothers, a prequel showing the earlier criminal escapades of Vic Vega from Reservoir Dogs (Michael Madsen) and Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction (John Travolta) before their deaths? Another film adaptation of the late, great Elmore Leonard’s novels? Or the men-on-a-mission World War II movie he was working on that he often mentioned during interviews? (Which would later go on to become Inglourious Basterds.) Tarantino had something else in mind for his next project: a revenge film inspired by the martial arts films, spaghetti westerns, and exploitation flicks he watched that helped contribute to his encyclopedic knowledge of all things movies. Movies like Lady Snowblood, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Game of Death, Once Upon A Time in the West, Eaten Alive, The Street Fighter, Thriller - A Cruel Picture, The Bride Wore Black, and many others.

That project was Kill Bill, and its first volume opened in theaters on October 10, 2003.

At a wedding chapel in El Paso, Texas, ten people have been shot and left for dead during a wedding rehearsal in what can only be described as an absolute massacre. The only survivor of this bloodshed is a pregnant woman in a wedding dress: The Bride (Uma Thurman), who ends up in a coma for the next four years after being brutally beaten and taking a gunshot to the head. When she awakens and escapes from her hospital bed, she has only one thing on her mind: revenge. Because The Bride is actually one of the deadliest assassins in the world, and she is fully aware of who did this to her: her former teammates in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah), led by her ex-boyfriend, Bill (the late, great David Carradine). And she will not rest until every single one of them is dead, though killing them all will clearly be easier said than done.

Kill Bill is telling the kind of revenge story that has been told in numerous action movies, TV shows, and comic books. But Kill Bill is not a simple revenge story, and not one where only the villains are made to suffer. A four-year-old girl watches her mother die at the hands of a complete stranger, and is left home alone to carry that weight until her father returns later that day. A brilliant swordsmith is left with no choice but to break a vow he made to himself three decades earlier, so that he can help put a stop to someone who used his gift of craftsmanship to inflict only pain and suffering. A woman wakes up from her coma to the horrifying discovery that the baby she was carrying inside of her is gone, and that she has been a repeat victim of sexual assault while comatose. The very first person she goes after on her Death List Five as part of her Roaring Rampage of Revenge is one of her closest friends. The very first thing we see at the beginning of this tale is The Bride: bloodied, crying, and scared of what’s about to happen to her, as Bill puts a bullet in her head right as she tells him that the baby she’s carrying is his, leading to Nancy Sinatra’s mournful rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Even as the film nears its conclusion, we hear a voiceover preparing The Bride (and us in the audience) for what’s to come, as it tells us what can and does happen when one chooses to go down the path of seeking revenge, and how easy it can be for one to lose their way.

But Tarantino also tells the audience that Kill Bill isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, and that fun will definitely be had on this rollercoaster. The Shaw Brothers logo and intro music (“Presented in ShawScope”), followed by the “Our Feature Presentation” card accompanied by Keith Mansfield’s “Funky Fanfare,” and the Klingon proverb about how revenge is a dish best served cold, will have some first-time viewers doing the Birdman Handrub in anticipation for what’s about to come, and others will be shaking their heads in confusion as to what type of movie they’re about to watch. If you know anything about Tarantino, he’s willing and able to entertain the latter, but Kill Bill was truly made for the former. (For the record: the classic proverb about revenge was not originated by Klingons. It was actually originated by Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.)

During the press tour for Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino mentioned that he wanted to challenge himself as a director by working in a genre he had never done before, and that genre was action. Thanks to his direction, Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography, and the incredible fight choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping and his stunt team (who came to the attention of American action movie fans thanks to their groundbreaking work on The Matrix), Tarantino was able to surpass expectations, and prove that his skills as a writer-director remained as sharp as ever.

Of course, when it comes to Kill Bill: Vol. 1, there have been some naysayers, and people who remain somewhat unsatisfied with it. Upon its original release, some critics felt that it was all style and no substance, and that it lacked the unique dialogue and characterization that Tarantino’s work is known for. Most recently on social media, at least one recurring complaint ends up being tweeted at least twice a year, much like Darwin being killed off in X-Men: First Class, Harvey Dent not recognizing The Joker until he removes his mask in The Dark Knight, and nearly everything about Man of Steel: The fight between The Bride and Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kurayama), O-Ren’s meteor hammer-wielding bodyguard, and the fact that The Bride actually wins this fight, which is seen as unfair and unbelievable. (Some of them have this same viewpoint about The Bride’s fight against O-Ren.)

(Perhaps I should’ve warned you readers that this fight, particularly its conclusion, is absolutely not safe for work. But this is also an article about a 20-year-old action film that was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, so really, you should know what to expect when pressing PLAY.)

I give these naysayers the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they know how movies and storytelling actually work, and that Gogo killing The Bride in combat, much like white people in horror movies doing the right thing and the smart thing by not putting themselves in life-threatening situations against murderous entities, would instantly bring the movie to an end, and there would be no more story to tell. Doesn’t mean it will stop them from occasionally talking sh-t about what’s being served to them on their plates.

The most memorable action sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is, of course, the seven-minute-long swordfight between The Bride, armed with her trusty and incredibly deadly Hattori Hanzo sword, and The Crazy 88, O-Ren’s army of enforcers led by Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu). It works wonderfully as a beautifully designed display of carnage and swordsmanship, and it’s so bloody and violent that it had to be shown in black-and-white to prevent the film from getting an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. (If you ever wanted to see a white woman breakdance while using her sword to cut off the legs of her enemies, this scene is for you.) Some critics and moviegoers couldn’t help but compare this blood-drenched battle royal to the Burly Brawl from The Matrix Reloaded, which opened in theaters a few months earlier before Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and it was easily decided that of the two fight scenes featuring one protagonist against multiple combatants, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 reigned supreme.

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It doesn’t take long for Vernita Green (code name: Copperhead, though if you ask her, she deserved The Bride’s codename of Black Mamba) to express her regret for what she did to The Bride. But it also doesn’t take long for her to make it very clear that she will kill The Bride without hesitation, and do whatever is necessary to protect herself, and to prevent her daughter, Nikki (Ambrosia Kelley), from learning the truth about who her mother is.

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Elle Driver (code name: California Mountain Snake) makes a brief appearance in Kill Bill Vol. 1, but she makes a very memorable first impression as she strides down the hallways of The Bride’s hospital while whistling Bernard Herrmann’s “Twisted Nerve,” and prepares herself to poison The Bride while she is comatose. When Bill stops her from doing so, her disappointment is both loud and profane, and she makes no secret that the only thing she hates more than The Bride is not being able to kill The Bride right then and there for good.

Oh, and People magazine? Why exactly are you writing about Daryl Hannah as if we don’t know who she is? Granted, some of us had no idea that she got married to Neil Young, let alone that the two of them were even dating, but your headline acts as if she’s a little-known character actress who hasn’t been around that long, and not someone who has been working since the 1970s by starring in some of the biggest movies to ever be released (Splash, Blade Runner, Wall Street, Roxanne, and Steel Magnolias).

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Hattori Hanzo (the late, great Sonny Chiba) is a likable man who is eager to please any customer who walks into his sushi restaurant (even if the quality of his sushi leaves a lot to be desired), but his entire mood changes when The Bride shows up, and makes it clear that his swordmaking skills are needed before she can begin her vendetta. No matter how much he would prefer to ignore her and turn her away when she comes knocking, he knows that too much has happened because of Bill, and all that he has taught him, and that it’s his responsibility to provide her with a sword that will help her eliminate Bill once and for all.

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As a child, O-Ren Ishii (code name: Cottonmouth) witnessed the brutal murder of her parents. Not only did she take her revenge on the man responsible for ordering their deaths, but she used her newfound killer instinct to become a trained assassin, before going on to become the queenpin of Tokyo’s criminal underworld. Anyone foolish enough to disrespect O-Ren’s half-Chinese/Japanese/American heritage will learn very quickly and painfully why doing so is a mistake, and why that mistake will be their last. She may tease The Bride about her fighting skills against her, but it doesn’t make her happy that their swords are clashing in the first place. (There was also no way in hell that O-Ren’s origin story was ever going to be shown in live-action, particularly the scene where an 11-year-old O-Ren straddles the pedophilic Boss Matsumoto while killing him, hence why the usage of animation was an absolute necessity.)

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It’s very easy to understand why The Bride is seeking vengeance, and declaring all-out war on Bill and her former colleagues. The scene where she awakens from her coma is more than enough to make the audience feel for her, and cheer her on, every step of the way, and also to remind you of how superb Uma Thurman is as an actress. As we quickly find out, The Bride is incredible at what she does (you try slicing a baseball in half with a katana when it’s suddenly being thrown at you from twenty feet away), and when she later refers to herself as the deadliest woman in the world, it’s hard not to believe her. She’s also fully aware that what she’s doing is not to be taken lightly, as evidenced by her reaction to Nikki witnessing Vernita’s death, the care and caution with which she approaches Hattori Hanzo’s collection of swords, and her acceptance of her newly-crafted sword from Hanzo. She knows that a lot of blood is about to be shed, including her own, and she treats it with the weight and seriousness her vendetta requires and deserves. Her claims to not possess any mercy, compassion, or forgiveness are somewhat false, judging from how she uses her Hattori Hanzo steel to spank the hell out of a misguided teenage boy who finds himself shaking in fear as he faces certain death.

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Of course, it’s impossible to discuss anything about Kill Bill without discussing Uma Thurman’s experiences with both Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein. From this New York Times interview with Thurman conducted by Maureen Dowd:

In the famous scene where she’s driving the blue convertible to kill Bill — the same one she put on Instagram on Thanksgiving — she was asked to do the driving herself. But she had been led to believe by a teamster, she says, that the car, which had been reconfigured from a stick shift to an automatic, might not be working that well. She says she insisted that she didn’t feel comfortable operating the car and would prefer a stunt person to do it. Producers say they do not recall her objecting. “Quentin came in my trailer and didn’t like to hear no, like any director,” she says. “He was furious because I’d cost them a lot of time. But I was scared. He said: ‘I promise you the car is fine. It’s a straight piece of road.’” He persuaded her to do it, and instructed: ” ‘Hit 40 miles per hour or your hair won’t blow the right way and I’ll make you do it again.’ But that was a deathbox that I was in. The seat wasn’t screwed down properly. It was a sand road and it was not a straight road.” (Tarantino did not respond to requests for comment.)

Thurman then shows me the footage that she says has taken her 15 years to get. “Solving my own Nancy Drew mystery,” she says.
It’s from the point of view of a camera mounted to the back of the Karmann Ghia. It’s frightening to watch Thurman wrestle with the car, as it drifts off the road and smashes into a palm tree, her contorted torso heaving helplessly until crew members appear in the frame to pull her out of the wreckage. Tarantino leans in and Thurman flashes a relieved smile when she realizes that she can briefly stand.

“The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me,” she says. “I felt this searing pain and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to walk again,’” she says. “When I came back from the hospital in a neck brace with my knees damaged and a large massive egg on my head and a concussion, I wanted to see the car and I was very upset. Quentin and I had an enormous fight, and I accused him of trying to kill me. And he was very angry at that, I guess understandably, because he didn’t feel he had tried to kill me.”

Tarantino’s response, via this interview with Deadline Hollywood:

I start hearing from the production manager, Bennett Walsh, that Uma is trepidatious about doing the driving shot. None of us ever considered it a stunt. It was just driving. None of us looked at it as a stunt. Maybe we should have, but we didn’t. I’m sure when it was brought up to me, that I rolled my eyes and was irritated. But I’m sure I wasn’t in a rage and I wasn’t livid. I didn’t go barging into Uma’s trailer, screaming at her to get into the car. I can imagine maybe rolling my eyes and thinking, we spent all this money taking this stick shift Karmann Ghia and changing the transmission, just for this shot. Anyone who knows Uma knows that going into her trailer, and screaming at her to do something is not the way to get her to do something. That’s a bad tactic and I’d been shooting the movie with her for an entire year by this time. I would never react to her this way.

Instead, what happened was, I heard her trepidation. And despite that we had set up everything in this shot, I listened to it. What I did was, I drove down this road, this one-lane little strip of road with foliage on either side, in Mexico. I drove down it, hoping against hope that it would be easy and safe enough for Uma to drive. So we’re going down the road and I’m looking at it, watching it and I thought, this is going to be okay. This is a straight shot. There are no weird dips, there were no gully kinds of things, no hidden S-curves. Nothing like that. It was just a straight shot.

Uma had a license. I knew she was a shaky driver, but she had a license. When I was all finished [driving], I was very happy, thinking, she can totally do this, it won’t be a problem. I go to Uma’s trailer. Her makeup person, Ilona Herman was there. Far from me being mad, livid and angry, I was all…smiley. I said, Oh, Uma, it’s just fine. You can totally do this. It’s just a straight line, that’s all it is. You get in the car at [point] number one, and drive to number two and you’re all good.

DEADLINE: What is that moment like, when you see the star of your movie crash?

TARANTINO: Just horrible. Watching her fight for the wheel…remembering me hammering about how it was safe and she could do it. Emphasizing that it was a straight road, a straight road…the fact that she believed me, and I literally watched this little S curve pop up. And it spins her like a top. It was heartbreaking. Beyond one of the biggest regrets of my career, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life. For a myriad of reasons.

DEADLINE: Can you elaborate?

TARANTINO: It affected me and Uma for the next two to three years. It wasn’t like we didn’t talk. But a trust was broken. A trust broken over a year of shooting, of us doing really gnarly stuff. Doing really big stunt stuff. I wanted her to do as much as possible and we were trying to take care of her and we pulled it off. She didn’t get hurt. And then the last four days, in what we thought would be a simple driving shot, almost kills her.

DEADLINE: She also made reference to telling you the things Harvey Weinstein did to make her feel so uncomfortable. You spoke about this when it had to do with your ex-girlfriend, Mira Sorvino. But what about that part of the story? About Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on Uma Thurman?

TARANTINO: Well, I dealt with it. The thing about it is, the good things I did are in the Maureen Dowd article. However, they are de-emphasized to not make any impression. Mira had told me what Harvey had done to her. I couldn’t believe it. We were now boyfriend and girlfriend and he was staying away. And I chalked it up to the idea that Harvey had a big crush on her. That there was this big Svengali moment going on, where she was at the Toronto Film Festival, the toast of the town because of Mighty Aphrodite, everyone is buzzing. And he’s the Flo Ziegfeld, presenting this new star. And that he had an over-inflated sense of his own sexuality. She told me those stories. I was horrified for her and frankly embarrassed for him, that he had to make desperate moves like that. Me and Mira became boyfriend and girlfriend and he backed off, all the way. I figured he was having a big crush on Mira.

Then, while we were getting ready to do Kill Bill, Uma tells me that he had done the same thing to her. That was when I realized there was a pattern, in Harvey’s luring and pushing attacks. So I made Harvey apologize to Uma. In the Maureen Dowd article it says, that is when Quentin confronted Harvey? Well, my confrontation was saying, you have to go to Uma. This happened. You have to apologize to her and she has to accept your apology, if we’re going to do Kill Bill together.

DEADLINE: You made that apology a condition of making that movie and continuing your relationship with his studio? Did you discuss it in calm tones, or were you in his face?

TARANTINO: They were insistent tones. They became more insistent because, naturally, Harvey tried to de-emphasize things and say things weren’t exactly the way they were…”well, she was doing this, and she’s saying that..” But that didn’t work, because I knew she wasn’t lying. There wasn’t another side to this story. There was this story. Harvey was really good at saying, well, the reality is there was this, that or the other thing…and frankly, if you don’t know the people who are being talked about, you could give somebody the benefit of the doubt. In this case, I wasn’t giving Harvey the benefit of the doubt.

I knew he was lying, that everything Uma was saying, was the truth. When he tried to wriggle out of it, and how things actually happened, I never bought his story. I said, I don’t believe you. I believe her. And if you want to do Kill Bill, you need to make this right.

DEADLINE: Were you there when he apologized?

TARANTINO: No, I wasn’t. But I knew from Uma that it happened. It definitely happened.

Even the stunt coordinator for Kill Bill had something to say about what happened to Thurman.

Coordinator Keith Adams told The Hollywood Reporter that he and his entire department were kept off set the day Thurman was allegedly pressured by director Quentin Tarantino to drive a rattrap convertible down a curved, sandy Mexican road at 40 mph, resulting in a crash that gave her a concussion, damaged her knees and could have caused worse injuries.

“No stunts of any kind were scheduled for the day of Ms. Thurman’s accident,” states Adams in an email to THR. “All of the stunt department was put on hold and no one from the stunt department was called to set. At no point was I notified or consulted about Ms. Thurman driving a car on camera that day.”

“Had I been involved,” Adams continues, “I would have insisted not only on putting a professional driver behind the wheel but also insuring that the car itself was road-worthy and safe.”

Kill Bill was originally intended to be released as one film, albeit with a three-hour-long runtime. But during post-production, Tarantino and Weinstein approached the idea of splitting the film into two parts, which made it so that Tarantino wouldn’t have to remove any crucial scenes while telling his story. They both agreed to make it a reality, and so their decision was announced in July 2003.

According to a source close to the production, the idea of splitting the film into two parts started out as a joke. But as Tarantino began editing the pic, the two-part plan became more attractive to Tarantino and Miramax co-chief Harvey Weinstein.

In the past, Weinstein has earned a reputation for urging filmmakers to cut the running time of their pictures. Cutting “Kill Bill” into two seems to be an elegant solution since Tarantino gets to release all of his three-hour pic, while Weinstein gets a 90-minute movie (albeit two of them).

For many Kill Bill fans, it’s understandably hard to enjoy anything about the film after learning that its lead actress was so horribly mistreated by two of her bosses, and that they both took advantage of her because they refused to take “no” for an answer. That being said, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 remains a timeless classic of the action genre, and one of the best films of Tarantino’s catalog. It also resulted in Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” and The 5.6.7.8.’s cover of The Rock-A-Teens’ “Woo-Hoo” being heard damn near everywhere after the film’s release and box office success. (If you had to take a shot every time “Woo-Hoo” was used in a commercial back in the 2000s, you would quickly end up dead from cirrhosis.) There is much more to be said about Kill Bill, specifically Vol. 2, when the second half of the film marks its twentieth anniversary next April. Which I’ll be glad to discuss and write about if Dustin hasn’t fired me for opening a cryptocurrency credit card in his name, and spending hundreds of dollars to send DVD box sets of The Goldbergs: The Complete Series to the entire Pajiba staff as a Secret Santa gift for my own amusement.

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