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Kill Bill --Vol. 1

Crouching actress, hidden filmmaker

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Quentin Tarantino helpfully identifies his Kill Bill -- Vol. 1 as "the 4th Quentin Tarantino movie," but a skeptic might ask whether there have been any.

Tarantino, after all, is the guy who famously raided Ringo Lam's Hong Kong-produced City On Fire for big chunks of his cult-favorite first movie, Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction, his generation-defining breakthrough hit, was self-admittedly a pastiche of characters and situations adapted from or referencing other people's films. And 1998's Jackie Brown was an undisguised homage to the blaxploitation flicks our Quentin savored in his youth, though like all his other movies filtered through his weirdly post-ironic take on the pop-cultural landscape.

Kill Bill, meanwhile, is Charlie's Angels Gone Bad, crossed with a Japanese samurai movie, crossed with a "spaghetti Western," and crossed yet again with a Hong Kong martial arts throwdown. All of it filtered through Tarantino's weirdly post-ironic take on the pop-cultural landscape.

It's also kind of fun, though of course only in ways that disregard good taste and conventional understanding of standards of artistic authorship.

Uma Thurman plays the hero, a character whose real name is spoken twice but puckishly bleeped out so that she is identified alternately only as The Black Mamba and The Bride. As Black Mamba, she once belonged to "The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad," a four-woman, one-man team of highly trained killers orchestrated by the titular Bill, who like TV's Charlie is here present mostly in his deep, gravelly voice. As The Bride, she watched as Bill and her former comrades spoiled her wedding by killing everyone there, mistakenly leaving The Bride herself for dead. Now, recovered from a coma, The Bride is out for bloody, fastest-sword-in-the-West (and East) revenge against her would-be murderers, including cold-blooded yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and ultimately puppetmaster Bill himself.

What's most notable, as the sword-wielding Bride slices, leaps and schemes her way through opponents, is how much of his particular pawnshop of movie history Tarantino sets out for display. It starts with the (faux?) vintage Hong Kong studio logo that opens the film, continues with casting -- there's Kung Fu's David Carradine as the voice of Bill, iconic Japanese tough guy Sonny Chiba as a master swordsmith -- and even includes a graphically violent five-minute anime interlude. The fight choreographer is Yuen Wo-Ping, who -- before creating the martial-arts sequences for the Matrix movies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- was among the top makers of Hong Kong's delirious action films of the '80s and '90s, yet another Tarantino touchstone.

Tarantino is someone who understands life through the lens of movies, and not the other way around. So Kill Bill ends up feeling like a movie built entirely of set pieces. And given his track record, when Tarantino dwells on a dramatic composition of two enemies poised for a fight to the death in a snowy nighttime courtyard, or the amusing sight of a deadly bodyguard who looks and dresses like a Japanese schoolgirl, I can't help feeling it's all secondhand goods. And the more distinctive a character or sequence is, the more I wonder where he borrowed it from. That's in contrast to something like Crouching Tiger, which nods toward similar source material but still feels like a whole and unique artistic vision.

Whatever there is of Tarantino's personal stamp is left to his use of TV commercial catchphrases, fleeting references to his own earlier films, and the encyclopedic backwash of Western movie scores and pop music that drive nearly every scene. He's gone to other people's wells so many times you'd think he'd have worn out the bucket by now. Homage, homage, reference, ripoff, lift -- it's almost as though Tarantino has nothing of his own to say.

Yet there are moments in Kill Bill -- Vol. 1 (Vol. 2, the story's conclusion, arrives in February), where Tarantino seems literally on home turf. An early scene finds The Bride and ex-Viper Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) knife-fighting -- in front of a picture window through which we can see Copperhead's young daughter arriving home in a bright yellow Pasadena school bus. For once the absurdist humor seems the filmmaker's own -- unlike, say, the stylized dialogue ("It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that I'm sorry."), but exactly like the way Bride departs in a bright yellow pickup truck labeled "Pussy Wagon."

So here are some benefits of the doubt: Tarantino directs Thurman to a performance whose cool restraint is surprising given the Grand Guignol material. The action sequences are well made, though perhaps overwhelmingly plentiful, the violence too ridiculous to offend. The costumes are great. The jokes are mostly funny. And just as Tarantino's soundtrack -- with singing by Nancy Sinatra and tunes by Isaac Hayes, Ennio Morricone, Quincy Jones, Ike Turner and more -- is loopily eclectic, so is he himself a cinematic jukebox, or maybe more like a cut-and-paste club deejay, stitching some of his favorite remembered scenes into something like a night of fun.

And in the end, Tarantino does exhibit a touch of self-awareness. "Silly Caucasian girl, playing with samurai swords," says Liu's half-Chinese, half-Japanese character, taunting Thurman's blonde avenger. Tarantino might as well be directing that line at himself: He knows he's being silly, but he also knows to take it all very seriously.

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