Donning a yellow jumpsuit and holding a Katana blade, Uma Thurman’s The Bride from Kill Bill has become one of cinema’s most enduring protagonists.
Kill Bill, which was first released on October 10, 2003, was Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film. The director had made his name with his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, following it up with his magnum opus Pulp Fiction.
With his first two films, Tarantino became a household name that made movie lovers excited to see what he would direct next. His third, Jackie Brown, did not have the same impact as his first two films, but has since been re-evaluated as one of his best films.
For his fourth film, the director decided to lean into a subject he loved: martial arts cinema.
Kill Bill’s story is one of revenge – righting wrongs and taking vengeance – told in a way that pays tribute to many a Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts film that came before it.
The film stars Thurman as The Bride, an unnamed character who survives an assassination attempt on her wedding day. David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu and Vivica A Fox also star in the film.
Kill Bill presented somewhat of a challenge – it had to be director Quentin Tarantino’s "comeback". While Jackie Brown didn't exactly fail at the box office, it did not have the same cultural impact as Pulp Fiction.
The marketing push for the film was seen and felt around the world. Some might remember images from the campaign, which included inventive ways of using blood splatter – one of the film’s symbols.
The film’s genre-specific style and violence fit in well with what fans wanted to experience in 2003, and it opened in cinemas with a strong $22 million gross in its first weekend.
Kill Bill went on to gross $180.9 million worldwide, which although less than Pulp Fiction’s $213.9 million in 1994, was double that of Jackie Brown. Together with the sequel, filmed simultaneously and released the next year, the two Kill Bill films brought in $334 million.
The film also earned very positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film a score of 4 out of 4, saying: "The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humour of its making. It's kind of brilliant."
The film’s home video releases were also successful, with many wanting to watch it again at home. Looking at news articles from 2004, Miramax announced that Kill Bill had sold two million DVD units on its first day of release.
Paying respects to a genre
Tarantino’s films are well loved today, because they tap into genre filmmaking and present a gritty and unabashed experience.
While Reservoir Dogs made it clear to cinephiles that Tarantino was a talent, it was Pulp Fiction that made him a global superstar. With the release of Kill Bill, his legend was cemented.
In Kill Bill, Tarantino explores the thrilling and extreme world of martial arts. His influences and references are clear to those in the know. The now famous yellow jumpsuit for example is a nod to Bruce Lee and the one he wears in Game of Death.
The over-the-top use of blood splatter in the film is a reference to the samurai and yakuza films of the 1960s and 1970s that became favourites of B-movie fans.
In the film, Thurman’s character travels to Japan to meet a sword maker who’s played brilliantly by Sonny Chiba, a Japanese actor who starred in his own series of martial arts films called The Street Fighter.
All these nods and references only scratch the surface of all the homages in the film. Through Kill Bill, Tarantino writes a love letter to all his favourite martial arts-genre films.
Twenty years on
On the 20th anniversary of the film's release, it’s a good time to return to the film and experience it again through today’s cinematic lens.
In recent years, action films like John Wick and its sequels have pushed the blood-soaked action experience to a new level, but it’s good to recall that Kill Bill pushed that envelope first.
Its Asian cinema influences made cinema-goers curious about its inspirations and a lot more people were then exposed to some of the best films in the genre as a consequence.
The film was followed up by a sequel that closes the storyline. Diehard fans will argue that the one true Kill Bill film is both parts watched back to back, and while there’s an argument there, watching the first one alone is a very fulfilling and enjoyable experience.