Years ago, I met a young woman who was to eager to talk up the comedy series her alleged visionary of a boyfriend was developing for public-access cable TV.
"Buckets of blood," she promised, as if that were a comedic end in and of itself.
Wherever that happy couple is today, I bet they'll go crazy over "Kill Bill -- Vol. 1," the megaviolent "4th film by Quentin Tarantino." (Yes, it's even described that way in the opening credits.) The picture is nearly 90 minutes of decapitation and dismemberment, with sword-wielding combatants hacking off each other's extremities until the red stuff spurts like H2O from a lawn sprinkler. To accept it on any level, you have to believe that a good hemorrhage automatically equals big-time yucks. If you don't, you'll realize that this is just a loud, derivative, ultimately inconsequential action epic -- the simultaneously frenzied and uneventful first half of a bifurcated tale (Vol. 2 is scheduled for release next February) that now has a long way to go to redeem itself.
For the first time, Tarantino has made a film that validates almost every charge his detractors have leveled against him. With a gimmicky flourish, the movie thrusts us into the world of The Bride (Uma Thurman), an unnamed former assassin bent on revenge against her former colleagues. Once a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DiVAS (oh, dear), she took her orders from mysterious boss Bill (David Carradine). Her compatriots were lethal babes with code names like Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) and Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu); our heroine was herself known as Black Mamba. (Her real name is consistently bleeped out on the audio track. In time, this may prove a vital plot detail -- or just a meaningless red herring devised to amuse folks who once debated the contents of the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction.")
At her wedding rehearsal in El Paso, the pregnant Bride was set upon by Bill and the DiVAS, who killed her entire nine-person party for reasons as yet unexplained. But the Bride survived in a coma, emerging four years later to find her womb empty and a thirst for vengeance consuming her soul. The majority of Vol. 1 traces her systematic extermination of the first few DiVAS, the initial steps on a payback trail that will finally lead her to the hated Bill himself.
The story plays out in nonchronological order, and that's a real godsend. Delaying even minor revelations gives a modicum of lift to a tale that would otherwise be an interminable series of mind-numbingly drawn-out battles royales. (To mow down her ex-partners, our lady commissions the creation of a weapon that's essentially the mother of all samurai swords.) Thurman struggles valiantly to bring emotional credence to a character whose every movement is steeped in melodrama. The actress makes what she can of the Bride's overripe tragedies; in her sunnier scenes, she again proves unbeatable at replicating the mask of innocent amiability strong women sometimes have to don to survive in a man's world.
Liu has her own stellar moment of backstory, showing how Cottonmouth took over the Yakuza with a mixture of terrorist tactics and boardroom sweet talk. Unfortunately, most of this character's biography is depicted anime-style, for no other apparent reason than to prove that Tarantino is down with last year's model. Vol. 1 is referential to the point of lunacy: Much of the movie is steeped in the sub-Bruce Lee stratus of 1970s martial-arts flicks ("Street Fighter"'s Sonny Chiba was a key contributor both on and off the screen), and there are two nods apiece to "Star Trek" and "The Green Hornet.'
A video-store tour is pretty much what we expect from Tarantino, but this time, he hasn't bothered to hang his swipes on a real movie. There's no consistency of approach, and his vaunted gift for dialogue amounts to having the DiVAS unconvincingly slander each other as "bitch." He's forgotten that the saving graces of his films were their moments of unalloyed humanity, like Samuel L. Jackson's climactic speech in "Pulp Fiction" or the interplay between Pam Grier and Robert Forster in the underrated Jackie Brown. Instead, this entire picture has ironic quotes around it.
The sentiment evoked is a nostalgic one, but not the one intended. "Kill Bill -- Vol. 1" makes you pine for a time in which even the cheesiest cinematic experiences at least tried to feel authentic. Remember when a movie stood or fell on its own merits? Remember how that gave you some small reason to care? Tarantino had better hope like mad that you don't.