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.
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's cinephilia — 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.
The total running time for "Kill Bill" is rumored to be a mind-blowing 3 hours — not as long as the 195 minutes for "Schindler's List" but more generous than the comparatively humble 166 minutes for "Gangs of New York." Although originally scheduled to be released in one long, uninterrupted slab, it has been broken into two sections, with the second half scheduled to open in the graveyard month of February. The reasons for the division have been widely reported, but mostly seem to boil down to the fact that Tarantino, Miramax or both believed the film would be served better if it were chopped in half. It hasn't been. "Kill Bill Vol. 1" doesn't end — it just stops dead in its tracks, throwing off the film's slow-building rhythm.
Given that "Vol. 1" is half a movie, it's impossible at this stage to know whether Tarantino has anything more on his mind than movies, whether the characters will deepen significantly and something more meaningful will emerge than clichés about honor and vengeance. "Vol. 1" arrives in theaters after six years of filmmaking quiet from a man who was once the most famous director in the country and — it's worth remembering — made a few great features. Tarantino may have done himself a disservice by staying away so long. Not only because the pressure for him to succeed will be more than any one filmmaker should have to contend with, but also because directors need to shoot movies and more movies, not just watch them.
Overstuffed with too many big-set ambitions, even as it also comes up short on fresh ideas, "Vol. 1" feels like the work of a director who's not just trying to top other directors but his own reputation. Given this, it's ironic that the best scene in the first section is a quiet exchange between the Bride and a sushi chef played by martial-arts actor and legend Sonny Chiba. Warmly funny and played to the rhythms of real conversation, the scene shows Tarantino at his finest. The characters' give and take — along with a terrific anime section and Lucy Liu's fiercely imperial performance as a yakuza boss — are what make "Vol. 1" add up to more than extreme gore and self-adoring virtuosity.
During the 1990s, no other filmmaker captured our American pop moment better than Tarantino. His exciting, free-associative gloss of irony, bent humor and geek love was intoxicating, and it hit the zeitgeist with a resounding thwack. But watching "Kill Bill Vol. 1" reminded me that no one can live on pop culture alone — certainly no artist — and made me regret too that so many filmmakers in this country think that they have to write and direct their own movies to be auteurs. Although he's most celebrated for volleying banter laced with expletives, pulp truths and pop philosophy, Tarantino's filmmaking talent has never been in doubt; he shoots and cuts with the best of them. The question now is if he has anything left to say.
'Kill Bill Vol. 1'
MPAA rating: R, for strong bloody violence, language and some sexual content.
Times guidelines: Extreme gore, severed limbs, one decapitated head.
Uma Thurman ... The Bride/Black Mamba
Lucy Liu ... O-Ren Ishii/Cottonmouth
Daryl Hannah ... Elle Driver/California Mountain Snake
Vivica A. Fox ... Vernita Green/Copperhead
Michael Parks ... Sheriff
Sonny Chiba ... Hattori Hanzo
Miramax Films presents A Band Apart Production, released by Miramax Films. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino. Producer Lawrence Bender. Director of photography Robert Richardson. Editor Sally Menke. Production designers Yohei Tanada (China, Japan), David Wasco (United States, Mexico). Martial arts advisor Yuen Wo-Ping. Original music the RZA. Anime sequence Production I.G. . Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times