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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003

A dull blade

Remember Quentin Tarantino? You know, the guy who was supposed to be the savior of indie cinema? The director whose debut, "Reservoir Dogs," took top prize at Sundance in 1992? Whose follow-up, "Pulp Fiction," defined cinematic cool in the '90s? The young Turk who rewrote the rules on narrative logic and pop-cultural pastiche?

News photo
Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill Volume 1"

Remember that guy? Well, if you see him, please call the authorities. Rumor has it that he's been locked up in an East Los Angeles basement, guarded by pit bulls and gimps, and force-fed a daily diet of health food and Merchant/Ivory movies until Harvey Weinstein coughs up the ransom money. Don't be fooled by that doppleganger, that kagemusha, they're passing off as the director of "Kill Bill." Yes, he looks and sounds like Tarantino, but if you watch the film, you'll notice something's terribly wrong.

Sure, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" betrays all the hyperactive cinephilia that we've come to expect from a Tarantino film -- boasting "quotes" from Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, Shaw Brothers chop-socky flicks, and ultraviolent yakuza fare -- but it's too much, and too obvious. "Kill Bill" doesn't nod toward the films it likes; it is the films it likes, often two or three of them at the same time -- "Battle Royale" meets "Sukeban Deka" meets "Master of the Flying Guillotine."

True, Tarantino's always been lifting bits -- witness the controversy over "Reservoir Dogs" and similar scenes in the Hong Kong action flick "City Of Fire" -- but the old Tarantino was a true remixer, who could take certain known elements, add something new, and make them his own. For Tarantino, that often meant jazzing up genre tropes with motor-mouthed monologues, off-kilter characters, and loopy story structures.

Dialogue? Characters? Story? Don't expect to find any of these in "Kill Bill," which is a grueling 80-minute slog through beatings, slashings, shootings, dismemberments, decapitations and not much else. This critic lost count after the fifth severed limb. Note that "Kill Bill" was knocked from atop the U.S. box-office on week #2 by the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." The karma is fitting: "Kill Bill" is about as original (unless you've never, ever seen any Asian B-movies), contains as much splatter, and would probably appeal to the same audience, for whom extreme depictions of violence are just a big joke.

For the most part, the gore of "Kill Bill" is too over-the-top to take seriously, more like a "Road Runner" cartoon than "Irreversible." But then there are bits -- a coma victim who's been repeatedly raped, The Bride's unborn baby being shot in her belly, Sofie Fatale screaming in agony as her arm's sliced off -- that are just nasty, not funny or meant to be. Tarantino seems to think he can yank us back and forth between feeling something or maintaining an ironic distance, but -- unlike "Reservoir Dogs" or "Jackie Brown" -- the end result is a kind of emotional limbo, where the viewer neither laughs nor cries, just swallows hard as the director bathes the screen in red.

But the main problem with the violence in "Kill Bill" is that that's all there is. It's like ordering a "Mac Royale" and getting a kilo of raw meat -- no bun, no ketchup, certainly not any pickle. Elevating B-movie schlock into mega-budgeted, over-hyped blockbusters is exactly what Hollywood has been doing since the mid-'80s, and Tarantino joins the club here.

The problem with mainstream Hollywood no-brainers -- say, a Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver flick -- has always been two-dimensional characters, nonsensical plotting and total lack of any emotional connection. Indie cinema, of which Tarantino was a leading exponent, was meant to offer an alternative to all this. "Kill Bill," however, has more in common with "Matrix: Reloaded" than "Pulp Fiction" -- and all the obscure Asian trash-cinema references in the world can't hide the fact that we don't give a rat's ass whether or not The Bride kills Bill. As opposed to "Pulp Fiction," where we definitely don't want Uma to O.D., or Travolta to get shot in that diner.

Tarantino has defended this 200 percent-action approach by saying, "If 'Kill Bill Vol.1' was an album, it would be a greatest hits record." Not quite: It actually feels more like a band's "sell-out" album -- you know, about their second or third release on a major label, where the production is slick, orchestras back up the chorus vocals . . . and the songs are all crap.

Sure, there are moments where you'll laugh -- hard-boiled Sonny Chiba playing an izakaya owner, the aircraft roaring right over Shinjuku rooftops (yes, Na- rita's so close), or the idea that a foreign woman (Lucy Liu) could become the top yakuza oyabun of Tokyo -- but it's not clear whether that was intended. Tarantinoland may be an inspired imaginary Orient . . . or it may be just another case of a Western director getting it all wrong.

There are some who will say that "Kill Bill" is more "cool," but just because Tarantino's B-movie models are more obscure doesn't make them any less stoopid. I mean, we're talking Kinji Fukasaku, not Kurosawa, here, and "Battle Royale" sucked to high heaven. Trash is trash, and "Kill Bill" is nothing more than well-footnoted straight-to-video fodder.

Not recommended if you've had less than six drinks before the lights go out. Though after six drinks, perhaps you've killed enough brain cells for one evening.

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