It seems a bit early for hotshot director Quentin Tarantino to beget a school of imitators, but then, instant genius is a cheap commodity in the slam-bang world of pop culture.

Roger Avary is Tarantino's pal from his days as a video-store clerk in California, as well as his writing partner on True Romance and the 1994 Cannes sensation Pulp Fiction. Now Avary has turned to directing movies of his own--and you can see exactly where the first one came from. It's a son-of-Reservoir Dogs caper picture called Killing Zoe, about a badly botched robbery in a Paris bank. But unlike its widely admired model, there's no quirky black humor to relieve its witlessness and very little style to stave off the boredom of slaughtering every character in sight. The director boasts that he dashed off the screenplay in a week. It sounds like it.

Tarantino is one of Zoe's three executive producers, and he clearly supports the 29-year-old Avary. But the days when B-movie kings like Roger Corman nurtured assorted Coppolas, Demmes and Scorseses by giving them a shot at low-budget exploitation movies has probably passed. If this debut were all adolescent slasher fantasy, that would be one thing. But Avary's head is also stuffed with arty pretensions and half-cooked metaphors, all of which show up on the screen.

Our hero, if you dare call him that, is a cold-eyed young American safecracker named Zed (Eric Stoltz) who's been summoned to Paris by a childhood friend. The friend, Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) turns out to be a rat-faced sociopath with an itchy trigger finger, and his gang of fellow bank robbers are a motley crew of incompetent slackers strung out on heroin. Their hideout is a crud-encrusted pit with a dead cat lying on the floor.

Whereas Tarantino manages to turn brutal, felonious clumsiness into a comic virtue, Avary doesn't have the skill. Instead, after a night of Dixieland jazz, booze and smack, Eric, Zed and the boys stumble into the bank, and when things start going wrong they slash and shoot and maim their hostages with a singular lack of comedy. The cops come. More shooting. In the end, you can't count the bodies.

That all this mindless carnage is meant to suggest the pseudo-existential French crime dramas of the New Wave (Godard's still God in film-buffdom) is made painfully obvious by the lunatic Eric's incessant philosophical aphorisms. That it derives not only from Tarantino but also from Peckinpah and film noir and Bonnie and Clyde will be obvious to most people.

But there's more. Apart from its tacit endorsement of heroin use, the film as a whole is meant, Avary has said, as a commentary on the alienation of his generation and an indictment of the control-by-hysteria practiced by the Reagan/Bush administrations. Now, that's the kind of allegorical reach you ordinarily find only in sophomore poetry seminars: There's no basis for either claim. Despite all the Heart of Darkness mumbo jumbo, Killing Zoe is about blood--and only blood.

The Zoe of the title, by the way, refers to the hooker/student/artist (Julie Delpy) who shows up (courtesy of a cabdriver) at our man Zed's room on the night before the robbery, falls for him, then materializes again the next day--as a part-time employee at the mayhem-infested bank. In Avary's simplified cosmos, Zoe and Zed are the forces of Goodness and Truth in this gruesome tale. Thanks for the tip, Rodge.

The ongoing and largely pointless arguments about movie violence are irrelevant here. For all his thunderous excesses, Oliver Stone satirizes the poisonous effects of American violence pretty well in Natural Born Killers, and Tarantino's brand of dark humor amid the bloodletting has a strangely liberating effect on his characters and his audiences. Avary shows no such gifts--not yet, anyway. He has been watching too many movies, you suspect, without ever coming out for fresh air--or clear thought. So he just blasts away.


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