It is interesting to note that in the five films which he has directed, Quentin Tarantino has shot not a single love scene. It's not that he has an aversion to sex, per se. There's the sodomy forced on a bound and gagged Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction; there's the momentary Clinton-style copulation Bruce Willis performs in the same movie; there's the stoned, bored, three-minute quickie Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda share off-camera in Jackie Brown; and there's the brutal, mostly off-camera rape of a comatose Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
Nowhere in his corpus, however, does Tarantino show any true sexual intimacy. In this way -- a small way, to be sure -- none of Tarantino's characters are real human beings and their actions create no dramatic resonance with an audience. Tarantino, in short, is not a student of the human condition. He is a student of cool. But then, you already knew that.
It's in this regard that the failure of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is most surprising. The first Kill Bill was a chaotic, bloody mess. Yet whatever else its failings, it was hip. Tarantino left no homage to kung fu (or himself) unsung. (See this exhaustive, but certainly incomplete, list.) It had unconventional camera work, interesting visual concepts -- even an extended Japanese anime sequence. Vol. 2 is devoid of this energy and spunk, settling instead for a darker, which is to say dreary, look and feel. Where Vol. 1 was criticized for its lack of Tarantino's trademark dialogue, Vol. 2 is encumbered by too much of it. In many ways the two halves are marked by mirror-image flaws. The second installment, however, lacks the sense of fun present in the first. (If you can imagine calling a movie whose climax involves a scalping and spilling of brains on new-fallen snow "fun.")
The story picks up more or less where it left off back in October: The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) is on a quest seeking revenge against her former comrades in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, who killed her fiancé, stole her baby, and left her for dead. Having already dispensed with two of them, three remain on her list, Bud (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and Bill (David Carradine).
There follows more violence and revenge, although less swordplay (which is bad) and gore (which is good). Mind you, this isn't to suggest that Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is suitable for children -- at one point a character has her eyeball plucked out and we watch as her attacker grinds it underfoot. I only mean that it's a sliding scale.
In Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, director Steven Soderbergh wryly notes that his bizarre 1996 film Schizopolis "probably crossed the line from personal into private filmmaking." If Tarantino hasn't reached that point yet, he's around the corner: He leans more heavily on "homage" than ever before -- it seems as if nearly every music cue or costume or shot is based on someone else's work -- and his hat tips are to works so obscure that it seems doubtful more than a handful of co-fetishists will understand the references.
Do you care, for instance, that Sonny Chiba's character Hattori Hanzo is based on the 1980 movie Hattori Hanzo: Kage no Gundan, or that Michael Parks's character Sheriff Earl McGraw is the same actor and character from the 1996 movie From Dusk Till Dawn (which Tarantino wrote)? Or that the music Tarantino uses when Thurman comes out of her coma is the same music David Cronenberg used in his 1977 Rabid when Marilyn Chambers snaps out of her coma? Even some of the dialogue is homage, such as the rapist Buck, who says, "My name is Buck, and I came here to … ," which was first uttered by Robert Englund in 1997's Eaten Alive. (Thanks to the movie geeks at IMDb for taking the time to spot as many of the homages as they could.)
And when Tarantino does something on his own, it's pretentious and unnecessary. In Vol. 1 Tarantino bleeps out the name of Thurman's character whenever anyone says it. He does the same in Vol. 2 until, midway, he decides to let the audience know that her name is Beatrix Kiddo. The reveal is worth neither the obscurantism nor the wait. Tarantino shoots one scene in a Mexican brothel (he is fond of pointing out to journalists that those are real prostitutes in the background). The scene is unnecessary and should have been cut.
It is tempting to dismiss Tarantino as an over-praised, fame-obsessed hack. He makes it easy for those who would like to do so. Talking about Miramax's charming Jane Austen adaptations, Tarantino told Biskind, "Harvey [Weinstein] knows that I hate that shit. Unwatchable movies from unreadable books." Thurman has said of him, "You must never forget with Quentin that he wanted to be an actor. If somebody asked him to act in something while he was preparing Kill Bill, he would drop everything to go and act. … He was much more interested in doing a guest spot on Alias." Talking about his experience at Cannes the year Pulp Fiction debuted, Tarantino recalled surveying the crowd and seeing that, "Out of any group there was like fifteen people there for Bruce [Willis], and nine people there for John [Travolta] and four people there for me." One gets the sense that Tarantino's count is scientific.
His slight oeuvre -- he has directed only five films -- doesn't make his dismissal more difficult. None of his work stands up particularly well today. The only thing Tarantino has going for him is the fact that he directed the single most influential movie of the 1990s.
No small thing, that. But Pulp Fiction was influential not because it was great cinema (it isn't), but because it moved with different rhythms and cadences and took the audience into unexpected places. It was, in an important and sophisticated way, cool. (My own theory is that the Gimp is responsible for 90 percent of Pulp Fiction's success. When you hear Peter Greene say, "Bring out the Gimp," for the first time, you are placed in the position of having absolutely no idea what's coming next. This is an incredibly rare and gratifying sensation for moviegoers.)
If Kill Bill is any indication, Tarantino is no longer interested in either influencing other filmmakers or gratifying a wide audience. It's not clear whether this is a case of wasted promise or the inevitable end of a huckster who, many years ago, succeeded in putting one over on us. But whatever the case, Quentin Tarantino has lost his cool, which at the end of the day, is all he ever really had.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.