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It's bloody Tarantino

If the gore in 'Kill Bill-Vol. 1' doesn't overwhelm, the film references might.

October 10, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Blood doesn't just flow in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill-Vol. 1" -- it splatters and spurts and rises in fountains so baroque and luxuriant that there are moments when it seems as if it were raining red. It isn't, but only because there's little in this private fetish of a movie that relates to the natural world. Despite the occasional glimpse of the not-so-great outdoors, the first half of Tarantino's two-part anti-epic isn't about life -- it's about movie-made death in all its spectacular and foolish excess.

For the first time in Tarantino's filmmaking career, the written story -- both in word and development -- proves the least interesting part of the whole equation. A woman simply called the Bride (Uma Thurman) wakes from a coma and sets about hunting down those who put her in cold storage. The film jumps a few times between the past and present, but the time warps in this section of the film are strictly generic. The past haunts the Bride and gives her a mission -- she's out for some serious payback -- but her director clearly wants to get going. He wants to rack up her enemies so she can knock 'em down, which is precisely what the Bride and her shadow groom do for 93 minutes of psycho-to-psycho slaughter.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie review -- In the review of "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" in Friday's Calendar, a sentence about director Quentin Tarantino was edited in a way that changed its meaning. As published, the sentence read, "There's something sweet about Tarantino -- it's his old time religion." It should have read, "There's something sweet about Tarantino's cinephilia -- it's his old-time religion."

A blood-soaked valentine to movies, "Vol. 1" is the ultimate film-geek freakout, a compendium of 1960s and 1970s cine-references from blaxploitation to Japanese yakuza, classic chopsocky and spaghetti westerns. But this is no ordinary movie love. From the moment that the logo "ShawScope" flashes in the opening credits (a nod at the legendary Hong Kong studio), it's apparent that Tarantino is striving for more than an off-the-rack mash note or a pastiche of golden oldies. It is, rather, his homage to movies shot in celluloid and wide, wide, wide, wide screen -- an ode to the time right before movies were radically secularized, before they were slabs of plastic to be rented, slapped into a home-video player, tossed and forgotten in the backseat of a car. Back to the moment when moviegoing was our great collective ritual.

There's something sweet about Tarantino -- it's his old-time religion. In "Vol. 1" he uses snatches of music from one type of movie -- say, a snippet from one of Ennio Morricone's scores for a Sergio Leone western -- and lays it over a bit of Japanese-flavored mayhem. Sampling movies like a D.J., Tarantino uses other artists' beats and images to scratch out his own tune. This sort of playful mix-master technique has its seductions, but there are dangers to getting hooked on other people's genius. . The penultimate battle royale in a Japanese nightclub has moments of great graphic beauty amid the spurting severed limbs, yet the scene's most stunning tableau -- a silhouette of the Bride squaring off against some heavies -- is borrowed from Seijun Suzuki, an eccentric master of the yakuza film.

This kind of mad movie love explains Tarantino's approach and ambitions, and it also points to his limitations as a filmmaker. His multiple references are inescapably entertaining -- it's like watching a movie programmer strut his cool stuff -- but there can be something distracting about them as well. (Unable to place a few titles, I started to feel like one of those losers on "Jeopardy.") Worse, they can show Tarantino at his clever worst rather than his clever best. His previous films have been stuffed to the gills with movie allusions. But what made those films rock weren't the salutes to Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups, it was the anguish in Tim Roth's voice as his character bled to death, the shock of John Travolta's assassin meeting his end on the can, the lyrical stillness of Pam Grier's face.

It's unsettling that "Vol. 1" gets so much of its juice from other movies. Tarantino clearly wants us to take pleasure in the groovy kicks and wild style he has thrilled to over the years -- the Bride's opening fight against queenly beauty Vivica A. Fox takes place in the key of Pam Grier. But the movie love can make it hard to hear the human pulse beneath the noise (it's there, if faint), much less see if there's anything new going on. Connoisseurs of exploitation films -- in particular, extreme Asian cinema -- will likely find the tsunamis of blood and flying body parts gory fun, as well as old (headless) hat. But I think Tarantino wants to do more than flatter his hard-core loyalists; greater ambition pulses through this movie, however misdirected.

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