Once Upon a Time in the East

Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill (or half of it, anyway)

For the opening 45 minutes, Vol. 1 is flat-out terrific. Tarantino takes the stuff of Asian movies, plunks it down on American soil and gives it a giddy spin of his own. But excitement starts grinding down once The Bride flies off to Japan. It's not exactly that the filmmaking gets lazy—the picture's intensely imagined and choreographed from beginning to end—but the inventiveness feels secondhand, fetishistic. In William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, the heroine wears a Japanese copy of a World War II flight jacket that is identical to the original but actually much more precisely and expensively made. One observes the same thing in Tarantino's Japanese sequences: He doesn't so much create something new as make even more manically rococo versions of sequences that already exist.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the climactic 20-minute "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves," in which The Bride's duel with O-Ren Ishii requires her to first fight her way through the Crazy 88 (yes, she must dispatch the whole black-and-white keyboard of assassins) and the murderous teenager Go Go Yubari, who wields a kind of lethal yo-yo. Obviously eager to produce a classic set piece, Tarantino milks every possibility from this battle. He shoots it in color, then in black-and-white, then in silhouette; he takes us from inside a raucous nightclub with shrieking rock-music chicks, to a snowy courtyard whose silence is broken only by the eerie thock of a bamboo waterspout bumping periodically against its basin. Yet even as this scene is worked through in lavish detail, it's also rather dull. One great pleasure of Asian action cinema is its hyperkinetic ease, but here the choreography lacks the knockabout nimbleness you hope for in a chopsocky swordfight, and all of Tarantino's directorial tricks (we watch a hatchet flying past us end in slow motion) can't perk up the ponderous redundancy of all those twitching, lopped-off limbs and geysers of blood. Like the free-for-all in Matrix Reloaded in which the Mr. Smiths keep arriving and you wish Neo would just fly the hell out of there, the girl-power showdown at the House of Blue Leaves continues for so long that it stops the story's momentum dead in its tracks.

Even as Kill Bill marks a clear advance in Tarantino's technical facility—other directors will be strip-mining his ideas for years to come—it's an equally clear retreat from the dawning maturity of Jackie Brown, which he doesn't seem to realize is his best and richest film. This battle royal marks the end of Vol. 1. Now, it may be that releasing Kill Bill as two separate films will prove a shrewd commercial move, especially when Miramax can later bring out a full-length director's cut as a separate DVD. (Three movies for the price of one!) But artistically and emotionally, cutting the movie in half is a real mistake, akin to bringing out one film called The Good, the Bad and a second one titled And the Ugly.

I left the theater feeling cheated, not for the most part by what I'd seen, but by what I hadn't. After all, Tarantino has scaled Kill Bill as a revenge epic intended to accomplish two very difficult objectives: make us feel the exhausting weight of The Bride's ordeal, her agon, while creating a mythic compendium of samurai, yakuza, cowboy and kung-fu films that's all the more dazzling in that each new scene presents us with a different cinematic vision. You'd have to see all of Kill Bill in one sitting to do justice to this elaborate conception. In the three-hour version, the House of Blue Leaves will likely prove a powerful centerpiece, forcing us to take the full measure of The Bride's weary resolve when, after her long, deadly battle with O-Ren Ishii, we grasp that she—and we—are only halfway home. Catching the rest of her story next February just isn't the same.

In the press kit, Tarantino himself defends the decision to make two volumes: "This is supposed to be my version of a grind-house movie, and the very idea of a three-hour grind-house movie is a contradiction in terms. It seemed pretentious, whereas two 90-minute grind-house movies seems more appropriate."

Now, there's no denying that Tarantino's eager to give Kill Bill a tacky, freewheeling air, from quoting the Klingons in the opening epigraph to having the credits call the picture "The 4th Movie by Quentin Tarantino." That said, Vol. 1is no more an authentic grind-house movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark was an old-time serial: It involves too much money, po-mo savvy and self-conscious artistry. Although Tarantino grew up surrounded by a gorier pop culture than did Spielberg or Lucas, he's essentially doing here what those directors did a quarter-century ago—creating big-budget versions of the cheesy stuff they grooved on as kids. But as the score's evocations of (and samples from) Ennio Morricone make obvious, his ambition and style actually come much closer to the Sergio Leone of Once Upon a Time in the West. Tarantino wants to do for Asian action cinema what Leone did for the Western—take a dream world already created by the movies and push its dreaminess to the point of self-conscious myth.

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