Gunned down on her wedding day by her former colleagues, an assassin (Thurman) wakes from a coma four years later intent on revenge. She makes a 'death list': number five is Bill, but first there are some old workmates to see...
Had tickets to Kill Bill Vol. 1 been made available at half price, it would have been the film event of its year. Sadly, however, the controversial decision to chop in two 'the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino' was not met by an equally bold pricing strategy and, for the second time in 2003, we were left with the difficult task of reviewing a partially completed work.
Vol. 1 comprises five chapters, the first of which opens out of chronological sequence, a narrative tic that is so quintessentially Q.T. it now functions to settle rather than unsettle his native audience. As a pitched battle between two assassins destroys a suburban home in Pasadena, in much the same way as drug overdoses and gun deals have invaded living rooms before now, you might be forgiven for thinking we are squarely in Tarantino territory. Ah, if only. With a sly visual wit - watch out for the arrival of a school bus - and trademark banter, this is the most confident scene in the entire movie.
The rest is a curate's egg. Chapters two to four include an origin story told entirely in anime, a largely subtitled sojourn to a sword-maker which aspires to the gruff humour of Kurosawa's samurai classics but falls short, and a flashback to The Bride's escape from hospital which is pure pitch-black comedy.
The final chapter, meanwhile, is a climax so bloody that - at least for western audiences - much of it takes place in black and white. Accounting for a full third of Vol. 1, you could argue that Chapter Five (and Chapters Two, Three and Four!) could have been trimmed to make Kill Bill work as single, two-hour-plus movie. However, since debate will remain speculative until Vol. 2, we urge you to just sit back and enjoy the splatter.
And what fine splatter it is. If, as rumoured, both parts of Kill Bill were shot for two-thirds of the SFX budget on The Matrix sequels, Tarantino has succeeded in making the Wachowski brothers look very, very silly indeed.
Compared to Q.T.'s slice 'em, dice 'em deli, the much-hyped Neo versus 100 Agent Smiths showdown appears unforgivably gutless and soulless. Moral guardians may be outraged but, after a build that most audiences will find slow, it is the bloody geysers Tarantino uncorks here that will have them joining the queue for the very next showing.
There is much to admire in Vol. 1, not least a performance from Uma Thurman as steely as the plate in her character's head and a knowing soundtrack that effortlessly smears the boundaries between east and west. And yet, there's not quite as much to enjoy as in the breakthrough works; indeed, with Vol. 2 still to come, the appropriate reference might be to Radiohead's difficult albums - Kid A and Amnesiac - which divided critics and cut the fanbase in half.
The loss of limbs features highly in Vol. 1, but the most notable missing appendage belongs to Tarantino himself. At times, the writer-director seems to be working with one hand - his writing hand - tied behind his back. Perhaps he was so fed up of having quotable dialogue thrown back at him that he decided to write a movie without a single memorable line. Or perhaps, after being lauded as an Oscar-winning writer, he wanted to prove himself as an action director.
Kudos to Q.T. - painting like an old master (even John Woo will piss his pants!) first time out is an astonishing achievement, but most people will still miss the signature flourishes of his trusty 'write hand'.
Well, it's a worthy addition to Q.T.'s 24-carat canon and one of the most thrilling movies of 2003, but the real question is, does it stand alone? To which the answer is - just about. But only Vol. 2 will determine if Bill has a heart to go along with all the guts.