Killing time pays off big for Tarantino

After six-year hiatus, director returns and proves he still has it

October 11, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Six years have passed since Quentin Tarantino's last film, and not since Terrence Malick took a 20-year hiatus between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) has a director's return to the screen been more widely anticipated.

Chat rooms have dedicated themselves to the topic. Speculation has known no bounds - was he suffering from chronic writer's block? Was he drying out someplace? Was he too demanding? Too sensitive to criticism? Just too plain weird for Hollywood?

Kill Bill - Vol. 1 ends the drought, and its quality (as well as its assortment of patented Tarantino touches) should keep his fans happy. But casual filmgoers could be pardoned for wondering just what all the fuss is about.

This is, after all, only his fourth film as a director - not all that much to be basing a reputation on.

Ah, but what films those first three have been.

The Tarantino story begins with 1992's Reservoir Dogs, one of the decade's more glorious film debuts. This saga of a bank robbery gone wrong, its principal characters known to each other only by their nicknames, elevated violence to Grand Guignol levels, as bullets flew, blood splattered and profanities ricocheted off one another to degrees some audiences, to this day, find simply offensive. But Tarantino was onto something, helping popularize a graphic trend in movie violence that would at once desensitize and horrify audiences. This was '90s realism meeting '30s crime dramas, and the result was riveting.

Pulp Fiction, released two years later, caught audiences by surprise, with its multiple storylines and pop-culture-laced dialogue, its rock-and-roll soundtrack that operated as practically another character, and its reverence for so many cinematic traditions that came before (especially those of the past two decades - it wasn't in vain that Tarantino worked as a video-store clerk). Again, the violence level was off the charts, but there was no mistaking the talent at work, not to mention the passion.

"His eye is incredibly sharp and amazing, in regard to visceral cinema," says Uma Thurman, who has worked with Tarantino on both Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. "He's a great storyteller. He's very seductive as a filmmaker."

And Tarantino proved his own best publicist; with his rapid-fire speaking style, his stream-of-consciousness thought processes and his street-hustler persona (perhaps Quentin tries too hard to act cool, but that gushing hipness is part of his charm) made him a favorite of journalists and a magnet for fans. It doesn't take an outsized personality to be a great director, but it helps if your goal includes being known as one.

Jackie Brown (1997) proved a letdown for some; its energy wasn't nearly as manic as that of its predecessors, and at 155 minutes, it could have used some trimming. But it showed Tarantino still possessed the ability to grow, as he produced a more languid, complex and even understated work. Fans wondered how adjectives like that could be applied to a film that was to be a tribute to the blaxploitation genre (Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown), but Tarantino was paying tribute, not copying.

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