Whole world's comin' to an end, Mal,'' Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) observes to his true love (Juliette Lewis) during a couple of scarce seconds of quiet in Natural Born Killers. ''Yes,'' many audience members agreed, ''and movies like this are part of the reason why.'' Yet curiosity about the tale of two lovers on a honeymoon of murder that never ends made it something of a must-see. For those who didn't see NBK, its video release, along with the less notorious but equally corpse-strewn Killing Zoe, gives renters ample opportunity to catch up on the current state of screen violence and marvel at the ubiquity of Quentin Tarantino (he wrote the story for NBK and coexecutive-produced Zoe). One film (guess which) strives for significance; the other goes for an alienated cool that eschews any kind of breast-beating.
Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone's visually dazzling movie about a pair of mass murderers who become media superstars, was pitched like a bomb into the laps of both the punditry and the public, whose obsession with the O.J. Simpson case was fortuitously coming into full flower when the movie was released last summer. But this was no incendiary device. What Stone conceived as a savage satire on contemporary mores, laced with disquieting passages of the old ultraviolence, is more like a film-student whoopee cushion. As exciting as it is to watch, NBK is at heart an extremely confused and rather corny movie.
The theme of being young, beautiful, and on the lam has a long tradition in cinema, and implicating the audience in the violent acts that occur on screen has an even longer one: It was around 1903, with The Great Train Robbery, that an actor first aimed a gun directly at the camera and fired. Given Tarantino's penchant for giggly viciousness, it's a cinch that his original screenplay (which was so worked over by Stone and company that Tarantino asked for a story credit only) was an in-your-face extravaganza. Stone upped the ante by shooting the movie in a dizzying variety of styles, incorporating rear projection and superimposition, adding animation and oodles of stock footage. Then he edited it all for maximum, can't-afford-to-blink effect (the shot-on-video sitcom parody is even more disquieting when actually viewed on a TV screen).
When NBK tries to send a message, however, it falls flat. The characters on the ''right'' side of the law are so outrageous they carry no weight at all (Tommy Lee Jones' rabid prison warden looks as if he stepped straight out of a Mad magazine send-up). In the end, the big statement turns out to be nothing more than ''tabloid TV reporters must die.'' As for the violence, well, I've seen worse, which is to Stone's credit. He cartoonizes the carnage in a way that only someone painfully aware of the difference between real violence and movie violence can (remember that Stone fought in Vietnam).
But Roger Avary, the writer-director of Killing Zoe, blithely floods the screen with as much real-looking blood as he can for his nihilistic gang of would-be bank robbers to slide around in. Avary's an old colleague of Tarantino's (they both clerked at the now-legendary Video Archives), and Zoe comes off as a variation on the Tarantino-scripted True Romance. That movie articulated a male fantasy that's probably common among video-store clerks: Boy Meets Whore, Boy Improbably Enough Gives Whore Orgasm, Boy and Whore Are Thrown Into Danger, Whore Saves Boy. In Zoe, the boy is disaffected safecracker Zed (Eric Stoltz), who's traveled to Paris to help boyhood chum Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) knock over a bank. On his first night in town Zed wows prostitute Zoe (Julie Delpy) and gets initiated into the heroin-snorting nightlife by Eric, who's not the mastermind he'd like to think he is. Sure enough, the next day's caper brings one catastrophe after another.
Every once in a while, Avary serves up a crass shock effect to show us who's boss, but beyond that, Zoe is hollow, a movie enthusiast's flourish-ridden take on countless noir thrillers. It's deftly constructed and briskly paced. And to remind you that it's an art film, Avary intercuts the sole sex scene with shots from Murnau's Nosferatu, playing on a hotel TV. Like NBK, Zoe is another movie whose menacing bark is a lot worse than its bite. Natural Born Killers: :C+" Killing Zoe: B-