Kung Fu for Dummies: Kill Bill Vol. I

Half a sword-wielding revenge epic is better than a whole decade without Tarantino. But his latest is more like a movie-survey course than a movie.

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one but Quentin Tarantino there to film it , and if there’s no one but Quentin Tarantino in the theater to watch the movie, does the movie actually exist? During the one hour and 50 minutes of Kill Bill Vol. I (which opens Friday, Oct. 10, at the Neptune and other theaters), the first installment of Tarantino’s ’70s-saturated martial-arts opus, no trees are toppled but dozens of severed heads, limbs, and bodies fall to the ground. The problem isn’t the violence per se. Even if you’re the sort, as I am, to cackle at spurting arterial blood and pause-a-beat decapitations, the gore seems oddly academic. The movie is neither realistic in its violence, like Reservoir Dogs, nor particularly funny, like Pulp Fiction. Both those films also looked backward to other films, but they felt new and invigorating. Bill is one long goof on the writer-director’s film and TV favoritesexcept that goof is like a lecture, and Tarantino is like a pedant trying to force a billion movie factoids into your brain.

I’m all in favor of cinematic self- indulgence when, in its highest form, it becomes an act of generosityindulging us, too, in the pleasure of recapitulating and reimagining favorite movie moments. But Bill needs some justification beyond Tarantino’s own distant movie-going youth. So privately coded and influenced by his SoCal chopsocky movie-palace memories, Bill arrives like something already old. The cheesy credits and wah-wah-pedal score signal a debt to both Blaxploitation flicks and Hong Kong’s Shaw brothers; but you’d have to run up a hefty debt at Scarecrow to understand even a fraction of what Tarantino is charging you with here.

As the title implies, Bill is a pure revenge picture. Bill (Kung Fu TV icon David Carradine) is never glimpsed beyond his knotty hands or heard beyond his knotted voice. His former lover and assassin-squad member, known as The Bride, holds the camera more commandingly in the battle-scarred form of Uma Thurman. We meet her in black-and-white prologue panting for her life before a bullet enters her brain. She wakes from a coma, in color, four years later to avenge that insult. The rest of the movie is a red blur, though it loops back periodically to explain her mortal grudge.

The Bride was once part of Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad; apparently she decided to quit the biz, but Bill wouldn’t let her. (Presumably, hopefully, Kill Bill Vol. II will make clear why when it arrives Feb. 20). So her fellow Vipers (Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox) turn against her on Bill’s instructions, which is where the body count begins. Unlike Charlie’s Angels, Bill’s Vipers have no time to shake booty with the UPS man; Thurman and Fox battle to the death before the film’s first few minutes are over, Fox exclaiming “Hi-Ya!” with each karate chop in ultra-badd Pam Grier fashion. Then it’s off to Japan, where Thurman procures a samurai sword from ’70s icon Sonny Chiba (warm and funny in both English and Japanese); the blade is meant to dispatch Liu, now a yakuza queen. The resulting tea house battle takes about 45 minutes and a cast of hundreds of screaming swordsmen; then the movie slams into its scabbard until February.

LIKE JACKIE BROWN, only more so, Bill is an enthusiasts‘ picturethe unholy offspring of your TiVo and your multiregion DVD, scrambling the DNA of many genres together. The soundtrack lurches from ersatz Ennio Morricone to Tex-Mex to Japanese surf rock to lurid Canto-melodrama to echoes of Isaac Hayes. And that enthusiasm is both Bill‘s success and failure. Tarantino gleefully amps up each “swoosh” and “thwock” of swords slicing through flesh and bone. There’s even a signature siren freak-out theme that accompanies Thurman’s crimson flashbacks. It’s like he’s stuffing an entire can of Cheez Whiz down your throat. You’ll either gag or swallow.

What’s weird is that Tarantino should treat all this gory fun so solemnly. The opening credits announce Bill as “the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino,” as if on a tablet of stone. The killers say things like “I beseech you” in mid-combat. Endless chapter intertitles interrupt the action and cause cascades of flashbacks. There’s even a pathos-filled anime sequence for Liu’s back story. Yet there aren’t any memorable Pulp Fiction “Le Big Mac” riffs; Bill lacks good lines to quote to your friends. We become the Kung Fu grasshopper to Tarantino’s sententious sensei: Yes, Master, tell us more about the yellow-and-black Bruce Lee costume from Game of Death that you had reproduced for Thurman to wear.

All the slo-mo Styrofoam snow and magical martial-arts wire-work lift Bill not to Crouching Tiger mythos but sticky floored movie-house mundanity. How many heads do we need to see Thurman chop off before, yes, we appreciate she’s pretty handy with a sword? You could savor Pulp Fiction‘s brilliance without reference to any older movies or TV shows. That film looked outward from Tarantino’s video-store clerk perspective; Jackson’s forgiveness and Travolta’s blood atonement carried some moral weight, something that transcended its genre underpinnings. By contrast, Bill looks entirely inward. It’s a closed-loop of personal signifiers, a lecture that requires a martial-arts syllabus few filmgoers have time to read. I’m glad Tarantino made it, but could Volume II be less like homework and more like recess?