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“Less talk—more shock”: If Kill Bill—Vol. 1 were a radio station—and it has a more expansive playlist than any Clear Channel outlet—that would have to be its motto. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are gory, of course. But they’re known and loved best for the scenes in which dialectical lowlifes interpret such phenomena as pop songs and French hamburgers. Like their creator, Tarantino’s thugs have always been connoisseurs of junk culture, so you might think they’d have plenty to say during Bill 1, the writer-director’s biggest pop-cult miscellany yet. This time, however, Tarantino has them observe the samurai’s code of Bushido, which counsels to shut up, already.

Bill 1 is the first Tarantino movie since Reservoir Dogs to run shorter than two hours, but that’s not evidence of a tighter focus. As you may have deduced, this is only the first of two installments, an arrangement necessitated when the director went extravagantly overbudget and shot enough footage for a miniseries. The saga of the Bride (Uma Thurman) is scheduled to continue in February 2004 with a film whose reception will really test Tarantino’s appeal: Having waited the six years since Jackie Brown, the director’s cult should turn out for Vol. 1 no matter what the reviews say. Hours 3 and 4 of the Bride tiresomely dispatching her enemies will be a much harder sell.

Although the film could hardly be stuffed with more references to things Tarantino thinks are cool, Bill 1 offers significantly less plot than its predecessors. The Bride, code-named Black Mamba, is a member of the DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) commanded by Bill (David Carradine). Pregnant with Bill’s child, the Bride decides to retire from the hit game and marry another man. At the wedding rehearsal, the DiVAS arrive and blast everyone. Yet somehow the Bride (whose real name is ostentatiously bleeped) survives. Four years later—less time than it takes Tarantino to make a movie—she awakes from a coma to find herself about to be raped in her hospital bed. (This is not presented as quite so cute a development as in Talk to Her.)

The Bride savagely defends her virtue, wills herself out of partial paralysis, and begins an odyssey of artery-severing revenge. In the first half of her quest, she travels to Okinawa to obtain the perfect weapon from retired samurai swordsmith Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba). Then she heads to Tokyo to battle the yakuza army of Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu)—whose backstory is detailed in a brutal Japanimated insert—and finally to Pasadena to face Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox). (This isn’t actually the order of the events in the movie, but Tarantino’s nonchronological gamesmanship hardly matters.) Set to rumble in Bill 2 are Sidewinder (Michael Madsen), California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah), and Bill himself.

According to Tarantino, Kill Bill was inspired principally by spaghetti Westerns, Chinese and Hong Kong martial-arts flicks, and Japanese anime and samurai movies. The Western and kung-fu stuff largely ended up in Vol. 2, however, leaving this the most Japan-struck American movie to open in, well, several weeks. Although the bulk of the Okinawa and Tokyo sequences were actually shot on sets in Beijing, a surprisingly large chunk of the dialogue is in Japanese, delivered not only by such Japanese actors as Chiba but also (and with unexpected credibility) by Thurman and Liu. From blaxploitation movies—a diminished but not vanished influence—to Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza pictures, Tarantino seems most at home in the ’70s. Yet there are echoes of more recent Japanese films here, too, including Fukasaku’s 2000 high-school death-match flick, Battle Royale (from whose cast Tarantino plucked Chiaki Kuriyama, who plays Cottonmouth’s homicidal schoolgirl sidekick) and Takashi Miike’s nihilistic genre-film demolitions. (Jun Kunimura, who here plays a hapless yakuza boss, appeared in Miike’s Audition and Ichii the Killer.)

Though Miike’s who-gives-a-fuck? approach suggests a profound impatience with filmmaking itself, Tarantino apparently just can’t get enough—and not only of genre movies. Rejecting Hollywood’s customary disdain for TV, Bill 1 happily invokes Star Trek, Charlie’s Angels, Kung Fu, The Green Hornet, and Ironside, sometimes by grabbing theme music from those shows. And the character of Hattori Hanzo was originally played by Chiba on a Japanese TV series that Tarantino watched as a kid, Shadow Warriors. Of course, in taking an established pulp-fiction hero for his own film, the director is following an artier precedent: French cinematic tough guy Lemmy Caution was appropriated for Alphaville by Jean-Luc Godard, whose Band à Part provides the name of Tarantino’s production company.

And so on. Any discussion of Bill 1 risks becoming an inventory of the omnivorous Tarantino’s references, motifs, and influences. Ironic Top 40 oldies? Check. So-vulgar-it’s-funny sex talk? Check. Shot of impossibly tight landing at urban airport borrowed from a dozen made-in-Hong Kong pictures but transposed to Tokyo just for the hell of it? Check. This sort of itemization might seem unfair, but it’s not: The film plays like nothing so much as a catalog of favored moments from the director’s video and music collection. It’s almost as if he were so busy demonstrating what he knows about movies that he forgot to make one.

If Bill 1 has the least compelling narrative of Tarantino’s films as a writer-director, it might be because it’s the first time he’s really gone it alone. Jackie Brown was derived from an Elmore Leonard novel, and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction’s scripts both owe something—exactly what remains a matter of contention—to former writing partner Roger Avary. Yet Tarantino’s canon does include movies that are just as ungainly as Bill 1. They just happen to be ones he wrote but didn’t direct. Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk to Dawn and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers are even bloodier messes than Bill 1, and Stone’s direction of Tarantino’s script uses many of the same gambits as Bill 1, including ultraviolence, diverse visual styles, and a hyperactive, maniacally eclectic soundtrack. Bill 1’s incidental music is by the RZA, who not coincidentally also scored Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, but it’s barely noticeable in an audio pile-up that ranges from Neu! to Charlie Feathers to Bernard Herrmann to the Human Beinz.

Faced with all this clutter, disappointed viewers might well conclude that Tarantino just couldn’t find room for entertaining dialogue or an interesting story. Those absences are hardly accidental, however: The director recently told the Village Voice that Kill Bill is his bid to become an action director, avowing, “A good action sequence is cinema in its purest form.” Given that Tarantino has never shown any interest in pure forms, that’s a curious assertion. Even when staging an austere, black-and-white snow-garden sword duel between the Bride and Cottonmouth, he throws in flamenco music to break the mood. And though he hired HK action veteran Yuen Wo-ping to choreograph Bill 1, he disrupts Yuen’s fluid moves with showy cuts and flashy pans. Such self-conscious ploys are why Kill Bill—Vol. 1 recalls not the work of Sergio Leone or John Woo but that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Peter Greenaway, directors who explore their private obsessions with only the slightest concern for the audience. Rather than make a ’70s action movie for our time, Tarantino has transformed the exploitation flick into a paradigm of personal decadence.

Madame Satã opens with a close-up of its protagonist, the bruised but proud João Francisco dos Santos, and it never really pulls away. Loosely based on the life of a legendary Rio de Janeiro outlaw, writer-director Karim Aïnouz’s film conveys a complete world with intimate views of faces and bodies in tight spaces. This is, of course, the gambit of a low-budget filmmaker: Aïnouz didn’t have the money to rebuild the streets and buildings of ’30s Rio just for a few establishing shots. Yet the strategy is both visually involving and effective shorthand for João’s status as a big man in a small (and nasty) part of town.

A ready-made character for Fassbinder or Jean Genet, unapologetically gay João was an adept street brawler who aspired to be Josephine Baker, as well as a thief and a murderer who provided a home to eight adopted children. In Aïnouz’s version of this singular life, João (Lázaro Ramos) lives with two sometime hookers: an effeminate gay man, Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), and a forceful woman, Laurita (Marcélia Cartaxo), who has a baby. João works as the dresser to a nightclub chanteuse (Renata Sorrah) whose act he knows by heart. When she objects to João’s trying on her clothes, he trashes the place and loses his job. Nearly everything João does is tempestuous, so it’s no surprise that his affair with a pretty thief (Felipe Marques) switches easily from tender to rancorous and ends while João is doing one of his periodic jail stretches. (He was incarcerated for 27 of his 76 years.) After he’s released, João emerges as a local star, regaling audiences in a working-class bar with campy songs and tales about magical lands far from Rio’s slums—and his own experience.

Although he wears elaborate jewelry and extensive makeup, João is not exactly a drag performer. His onstage get-up is flamboyantly androgynous, more Ziggy Stardust than Wayne County, which is still enough to threaten some macho observers. “I’m a queen by choice. It doesn’t make me less of a man,” Joao tells a group of guys who hang around the bar until closing time so they can insult him. That confrontation leads to the movie’s final event, although not to the end of João’s career. A closing note reveals that João dubbed himself Madame Satã—in tribute to Cecil B. DeMille’s Madame Satan—in 1942, which is years after Aïnouz concludes the story.

It’s a little odd that Madame Satã is named for an alter ego who doesn’t exist in the film. Aínouz’s movie is indeed a quick sketch of a life that seems to merit an epic, but it works on its own terms: Walter Carvalho’s swirling, smeary images are a triumph of faux-documentary camerawork, Isabela Monteiro de Castro’s editing is suitably breathless, and Marcos Suzano and Sacha Ambak’s score ranges effectively from filmy European art song to burly Afro-Brazilian drumming. Fittingly, however, it’s Ramos’ performance—as feral, volatile, and commanding as the character he plays—that carries the whole undertaking. He makes this little film as big as a very large life. CP