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Tarantino's cool, but he's no soul man

The first installment of ‘Kill Bill’ lacked the depth of Tarantino's early films like ‘Jackie Brown.’ Will the second installment be better? By Jon Bonné

This should be a banner week for Quentin Tarantino fans. “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” the second installment of his tribute to the unbounded glories of bloodletting, is out Friday, and the first part is being released on DVD.

So why do I feel like somebody's raining bullets on my parade?

Perhaps because all that “Kill Bill Vol. 1” proved was that Tarantino is the brilliant technician we already knew he was and that any shred of pathos he once had was lost in a haze of ego and the relentless search for cool.

He can innovate and synthesize the breadth of pop cinema as few others can. But his style is akin to doing slammer shots of fine cognac; there is refinement and craft, but it's lost in consumption.

Actually, the first part of “Kill Bill” was not as bad as I feared. But that's faint praise; given how much Tarantino said he wanted to do a 180 from his last film, “Jackie Brown,” my expectations were abysmally low.

“Vol. 1” was all blood and no brains, an exercise in soullessness, devoid of the sensitivity and the bloody wit in his earlier films — or in the best comic book writing, which he clearly keeps as a key inspiration.

What's really sad is that with “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino was beginning to prove himself as a filmmaker, not just an overly juiced flash in the pan. He took an already tight Elmore Leonard story and made it even tighter — a far cry from the mess of “Get Shorty” — yet still managed to place it all in his quirky little SoCal world, complete with the tics and lagniappes that make his films so worthwhile.

Most important, he let talented actors — including Pam Grier and Robert Forster, both resurrected from the video shelves — do their thing. He expanded on his deserved reputation as an actor's director. Perhaps as a sign of his willingness to let fine acting shine, he kept himself notably absent from the screen.

“Jackie Brown” was proof of what “Pulp Fiction” and especially “Reservoir Dogs” hinted at: Here was a man who could compel us with the strength of human drama, even if he augmented it with a little cribbing from directors — from Jean-Luc Godard to Jack Hill — whom he may have correctly assumed most of his audience had forgotten or never knew.

So what the hell happened?

Gore without feelingIt's not the cartoonish body count or the endlessly spurting blood that makes "Kill Bill" such a disappointment thus far; it's that it's so dehumanized, drained of the emotion he had proven he could draw from actors as few others could. (Perhaps he felt Mr. Orange's bloody moment of truth in “Reservoir Dogs” was primal enough that he could skimp on a film or two.)

While many critics felt Tarantino went overboard on the bloodshed, it didn't strike me as obscene — and Mel Gibson quickly topped it anyway.

But while “Pulp Fiction” had its share of blasé, even quirky, violence, Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary folded the mayhem into stories that were compelling, genuinely funny and potentially meaningful — if chronologically tortured. In the early days of Web geekdom, I recall endless hours of debate about “Pulp's” finer points.

Tarantino has clearly grown bored with subtlety. In an interview last year with Newsweek's David Ansen, he defended his turn away from work like “Jackie Brown,” saying it would lead to him making “geriatric” movies before long. (I can see it now: "Quentin Tarantino's Cocoon.")

And he turned away with a vengeance. Indeed, with “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” dear Quentin turned out not so much film as video game, complete with kung-fu death moves and bird's-eye scans of buildings, as though we viewers would be better served reaching for joysticks than for popcorn.

The film's visual fun is certainly impressive (thanks in no small part to ever-talented cinematographer Robert Richardson) and it's no small feat to be able to thread together vintage ’70s kung fu, the stylings of Japanese pop culture and the epilepsy-inducing flash of modern gaming. But as with so many video games, kinetics win out and the actors are left with — shrug — not much to do.

Girl power?I don't buy another popular argument: that “Kill Bill” somehow speaks to a female audience eager for bloodletting empowerment.

The basic concept of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — whose other members, the film's premise goes, The Bride (Uma Thurman) hopes to get even with after she is nearly assassinated on her wedding day — is just a cheap knock-off of earlier, less gory girlfighter works like “Charlie's Angels.” Tarantino himself parodied it in “Pulp Fiction,” when Mia Wallace (Thurman again) described her role in “Fox Force Five,” an “Angels” TV knockoff that seems suspiciously like a precursor, given Tarantino's fecund mind, to the DiVAS.

And Tarantino had already created a quietly fearsome female lead in “Jackie Brown.” In the title role, Pam Grier — coming full circle in her own way — was a woman so internally strong and savvy that no one could get a lock on her. Tarantino was just showing his love of Blaxploitation's tough-girl empowerment, but he did it with so much heart and so much style that the film quietly shimmered. How often do you find a middle-aged black woman in roles like that?

Beyond that, women kicking butt on screen is hardly new (Linda Hamilton, anyone?) and even the hot women/martial arts thing was far more deftly orchestrated in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Anyone who doubts the endless possibilities of cinematic Girl Power need look no further than Michelle Yeoh.

‘Cool’ vs. ‘deep’I know Quentin just wanted to evoke the Saturday-afternoon pleasures of badly dubbed kung fu, and somehow mesh that with the babe factor, but it's no excuse for mindlessness.

Perhaps he figured he could walk away from his old audiences (people like me) and court new viewers who were still drinking from juice boxes when “Pulp Fiction” came out. Perhaps “Kill Bill” is the perfect film for an era when teen girls and boys are equally willing to pick up the Playstation controller.

Tarantino told Ansen he wanted characters that were “cool as opposed to deep.” Swimming-pool jokes aside, that's just crappy reasoning from a filmmaker who hopes to survive and even rise above Hollywood's hopefully finite obsession with the shallow, and have an enduring career.

Assuming he wants that sort of career, it wouldn't have been hard to do better. The first “Kill Bill” had truly brilliant moments: Thurman's scenes with martial-arts film legend Sonny Chiba as swordmaker-turned-sushi chef (a true Tarantino moment), or the extended anime sequence that provides a backstory on gangster O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and may be the film's best character-building moment. Such moments proved Tarantino could, when he wanted, provide depth to a story as silly and skeletal as “Kill Bill.”

All that was enhanced with charming inventions like homicidal bodyguard Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), the dark inverse of every Japanese-schoolgirl fantasy, and the live soundtrack provided by rock-chick trio The 5.6.7.8s as The Bride neared her Tokyo showdown.

These were compelling moments — almost strong enough to forgive Uma driving that hideous “Pussy Wagon” truck. But they don't add up, as though Tarantino spent too many hours in the comic store and cribbed all sorts of cool cultural tropes, but couldn't be bothered to stitch it into a coherent tale.

Hints about the forthcoming second part are that it's less frenzied, more subtle and focused on the tale Tarantino is telling, and all that could be for the good. He himself has argued that the two pieces together will end up being plenty nuanced.

I can only hope he's telling true about “Vol. 2,” because as the tally stands now, he's serving up rice and selling it as sushi.

From 1995 to 1997, MSNBC correspondent Jon Bonné created and operated fan Web site TarantinoWorld. He knows what's in that briefcase.