|Photo by Andrew Copper|
When we last met The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, she’d just spent a good 20 minutes dispatching psycho schoolgirl Go-Go Subari, chopping her way through 88 crazy yakuzas, and killing O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) in a hushed moonlit courtyard. Even those of us who found this extended “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” a bit numbing had to marvel at Quentin Tarantino’s audacity in plunking down such a baroque fight sequence only halfway through The Bride’s saga. I sat there thinking, “How can he possibly top this?”
He doesn’t even try. In the uncommonly pleasurable Kill Bill Vol. 2, Tarantino pulls off a triumphant piece of cinematic jujitsu. Having set us up in Vol. 1 for an ever more elaborately choreographed carnival of slaughter to follow, he neatly pivots and pulls us in another direction altogether. The Bride is still seeking blood vengeance, of course, and she’s still surrounded by all manner of deadly weapons, from Hattori Hanzo swords to deadly African snakes. But from its opening minutes you can feel the two volumes of Kill Bill coalescing into what it was clearly intended to be all along — not an Asian-cinema pastiche or an exercise in extreme high style, but a full-fledged Tarantino movie.
Although Vol. 2 remains a tightly woven nest of influences, from chopsocky to spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino is more trickster than thief. This is a very different movie from Vol. 1. There’s more talk, more humor, more close-ups, more feeling. And because it’s far less violent, the film has a lighter spirit. Where the previous volume often wallowed in the nastiness of Japanese exploitation pictures — all those lopped-off limbs, all that geysering blood — Tarantino here relishes the playful cheesiness of old Shaw Brothers pictures in which stern-faced monks pluck out villains’ eyeballs and employ kung fu moves that even sound silly.
Vol. 2 finds The Bride back in the American Southwest and eager to eradicate the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad on her way to finishing off Bill (David Carradine). Naturally, this means a second encounter with duplicitous Elle Driver — Daryl Hannah in full-throttle bitch mode — strutting across the screen in black suit and eye patch like the vindictive anima of the Reservoir Dogs. But before dispatching her, The Bride must first deal with Bill’s brother Budd (a.k.a. Sidewinder), now a drunken bouncer at a titty bar. Budd is played by the reliably menacing Michael Madsen, whose face has gone soft and dissolute — his tiny eyes have sunk into his head like raisins into a bread pudding. He believes The Bride is thoroughly entitled to her revenge, though that won’t stop him from subjecting her to a harrowing premature burial that trumps George Sluizer’s The Vanishing.
Godard once said that movies need a beginning, a middle and an end — but not necessarily in that order. Although Tarantino isn’t quite so radical, he’s still a pretty fair sidewinder. Even as The Bride marches inexorably toward her face-off with Bill, the movie itself keeps leapfrogging in time and hopscotching in space, sprinkling in enough back story along the way to whet, if not quite satisfy, our curiosity. We learn why Elle wears that Hathaway Man eye patch, and we witness the ominous buildup to Vol. 1’s wedding massacre, shot in ravishing black-and-white by Robert Richardson, a scene all the more memorable because we don’t see any killing. At the same time, Tarantino refuses to pedantically tie up the first volume’s loose ends. If you’ve been wondering what happens to the disarmingly disarmed Sofie Fatale or whether Bill really was the assassin who slaughtered O-Ren Ishii’s parents, you’ll have to wait for the (inevitable) director’s-cut DVD. Which isn’t to say that Tarantino’s been sloppy.
Although his breezy use of chapter headings lets him create a series of semiautonomous mini films, he interlaces his motifs obsessively: Vol. 1 may have begun with Nancy Sinatra singing “Bang Bang” in a scene that made you hear it in a haunting new way, yet the song’s meaning doesn’t fully pay off until the end of Vol. 2. The movie’s filled with wonderfully directed sequences, such as The Bride’s training with Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a querulous, woman-hating kung fu master with bushy eyebrows like huge albino caterpillars.
One great challenge of a revenge yarn titled Kill Bill is that when the audience finally meets Bill, he must live up to his billing as well as his killing — he’s got to be more than just a guy who deserves to die. It’s been reported that Tarantino showed the script to Warren Beatty, whose personal iconography would have made him the perfect satanic Charlie for all those killer angels. But Beatty thought the script merely a conga line of fight scenes, and the part was offered to Carradine, who wisely snatched it like a plum dropped from heaven. When younger, the lanky actor had a deserved reputation as a bad boy; now 68, his face as weathered as a dried-up riverbed, he’s superb at appearing to be a very bad man. Whether playing his bamboo flute or making oddball speeches (unmistakably crafted in the atelier Tarantino) about the meaning of Superman, Carradine’s Bill is the corrupted parody of the Westerner enthralled by the Wisdom of the East — Kung Fu’s Grasshopper gone terribly astray. What makes him a great villain is that he’s actually enormously seductive: calm, rational, spookily sexy. You can understand why The Bride was once in love with Bill.
And he with her, although the movie’s real crush is Tarantino’s, on Uma Thurman. Not since Josef von Sternberg worked with Marlene Dietrich has a filmmaker created such a wild, splashy, rococo universe in order to idolize an actress. Of course, fan boy Tarantino eroticizes Thurman in a distinctively modern manner that would have struck ’30s Hollywood as bizarre bordering on lunatic. Not for her the slinky outfits and soft-focus gauziness. Instead, Tarantino shows The Bride drenched in blood or covered with dirt, cracking wise and kicking ass, sobbing spasmodically and killing with gusto, flying through the air to launch a leg kick and tumbling to the ground in a searing pang of maternal love. Bringing emotional resonance to a role that’s pre-eminently physical, Thurman shows us The Bride transforming herself from a pitiless viper into a right-to-life lioness. Tarantino’s work has been all about codes of honor and moral awakenings, and like Samuel L. Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction, here is a character whose epiphany brings salvation.
When Vol. 1 was released last fall, I thought it an artistic mistake to split Kill Bill in two. I believe that even more strongly now. The first film was an orgy of pyrotechnics, profoundly heartfelt because Tarantino so loved the films he was emulating (and often bettering), but somewhat hollow in its fetishized mayhem. Vol. 2 is the most sheerly enjoyable movie I’ve seen in ages, allowing for all the intimacy that was missing from its predecessor — this time, the violence feels personal. Yet this film, too, would be richer if it didn’t stand alone, but rather were part of one grand grind-house epic. For Tarantino’s conception takes The Bride (and us) on a journey that’s as formally daring as it is stylistically dazzling. Where conventional filmmakers would begin with the spectacle of the House of Blue Leaves (the Saving Private Ryan approach) or use it as the grand finale (every single James Bond picture), he puts it in the very middle, making it the stylistic hinge and emotional turning point: What really matters happens on either side of the killing. I’d love to see what the whole story looked like were it pruned and shaped into one 210-minute saga.
Even so, viewed as a whole, Kill Bill is destined to become a cinematic touchstone — the Gone With the Wind of exploitation pictures — and one wonders exactly what loss of confidence (or whose mania) led to it being sawed in half. No matter. It’s all out there now. And it confirms what some may have doubted: Quentin Tarantino is a lavishly gifted filmmaker whose every frame is alive with a passionate love for what movies can offer — movement and music, color and energy. Nowhere is his unbridled joy clearer than at the very end of Vol. 2, when he serves up the most jubilantly redundant credit sequence in Hollywood history, reintroducing the characters, naming his actors over and over, showing us even more footage of the radiant Thurman. You can tell that after nearly four hours of telling The Bride’s story, Tarantino’s still bursting with enthusiasm. He wants Kill Bill to go on forever.
KILL BILL: VOL. 2 | Written and directed by QUENTIN TARANTINO | Produced by LAWRENCE BENDER | Released by Miramax | Citywide