Kill Bill film poster. A pregnant woman's wedding day is ruined when the snake-monickered Deadly Viper Assassination Squad turns up and massacres the entire party...

The first part of The Bride's quest – Uma Thurman's angel of vengeance is never given a name – leads her to Japan in search of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), codename Cottenmouth, who now heads the Tokyo underworld

Kill Bill Volume 1 stars Lucy Liu

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Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: David Carradine, Sonny Chiba, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu
Duration: 111 min

For a while Hollywood decreed that some little stereotypes must be reinforced if its audience is to be satisfied. For example, any character that seems thick as two plankton must come from Alabama; if he's hard he lives just around the corner from Albert Square; if evil he obviously hailed from the Home Counties; if he's expendable, he has a beard. A few years ago if a studio wanted any character to seem decent, he had to be Irish.

Now, if a studio wishes its film to be taken seriously, it has to be serialised. This winter alone we have been treated to the final instalment of The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, more of which to be heard of soon enough. Quentin Tarantino's latest offering is also in two parts. If the studio is to be believed, this is also because the drama demands it. If rumour is to be believed, then the original was too long and the makers decided more dough could be made from two box-office outings.

But in truth it's a trilogy, as much as any other though I doubt anyone's keen to clarify this. Like Tarantino's earlier cult From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is really two films pasted together, somewhere around the point when Uma Thurman's character (The Bride) gets all heavy about killing Lucy Liu. Until then it's an acute, often severe, yet still ludicrously over-stylised drama about an ex-hit-woman seeking revenge for her and her unborn daughter's death. In departing from fashion, Tarantino makes every effort to make it so by alluding to every Japanese, Chinese and American martial-arts caper he's seen, but, unlike the excellent Crouching Tiger and the pallid Matrix models the unfolding motive for tracking down the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad is as tangibly heartbreaking as the results are grisly.

Tarantino surpasses himself in showing how, after four comatose years, The Bride reawakens to feel an empty womb where she last felt her daughter grow. Thurman's acting soars above first-rate and the direction is empathetic and dry of melodrama. If this fails to persuade you that Tarantino's emotive range has finally surpassed adolescent machismo, then the scene where the knife-fighter "Copperhead" Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) meets her Waterloo might do it. Staged at her home, the two killers slice they way around the living room until a noble and impromptu armistice is called by Green's young daughter returning from school.

This assured storytelling, if anything, shows Tarantino at his finest. Certainly, for the fans of the 'Tino style there are the Pulp Fiction interludes were the characters merely chew verbal cud - this time the pointless banter is in Japanese, Sake replacing the Royales with Cheese) - but he can revel here in the extreme thematic contrast between what he shows and what you must feel: the sadistic against the humane; the professional versus the maternal. The monochrome opening sequence that has Thurman lying pregnant and battered in her bridal wear, black blood spilling and staining around and beyond her is the paradigm of this method.

Bill himself is invisible throughout, his entrance displayed only by a monogrammed handkerchief wiping Thurman's bloodied brow. Tarantino's sense of irony - showing all this as Bill softly denies any sense of sadism - is already soaked in kitch. If anything, the first instalment of Kill Bill is about The Bride exploring her genocidal tendencies on anyone but Bill, with aspects of every good, bad or aesthetically challenged martial-arts caper thrown in for good, less-good or farcically daft measure. But amongst the gags and gimmicks there are incredible moments that will live far beyond what this genre is generally worth: the opening and near-death of Thurman's character is a triumph of dramatic technique. Nothing happens until it absolutely has to. And when it comes, you're shocked by its ferocity.

Only the inconsistency of Tarantino's demands detracts from the magnificence of Kill Bill: you cannot be asked to shed tears for the loss of The Bride's unborn and watch convinced when she later soars up walls. And regardless of having a crew shared with Crouching Tiger and The Matrix it isn't necessary to perform the same tricks. It all it feels as if Tarantino has tried a little too hard, but he has still produced a fine and perfectly unsettling ride.

You may leave a little disappointed, but nevertheless probably entranced. The crucial sting in the tail manages to be unexpected - a rarity for films since The Sixth Sense, as now the only way to guarantee a twist at the end is not to have one. So, through his rebuke of the contemporary fashion for more palpable retro, Quentin Tarantino has continued his Hollywood requirement. And even if Vol. 1 is still too long, you'll willingly queue for a sequel.

Daniel Masmanian

Trailers: QuickTime trailers at Apple website

DVD Extras: Making of featurette. 5,6,7,8's perform 'Jayne Mansfield' and 'I'm Blue'. Kill Bill Volume 2 teaser. Kill Bill Volume 1 teaser and trailer.

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