Kill Bill Vol. 2
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During the closing credits for Kill Bill Vol. 2, each actor is identified with a short clip from one of their key scenes. At the preview screening where I caught the movie, as each actor appeared in the credits, the audience cheered some and remained mum on others. Gordon Liu received cheers while Daryl Hannah got nothing. Sonny Chiba received the biggest ovation, while Uma Thurman got only a smattering of applause. Strange, considering the movie revolves around Thurman's character and your reaction to the movie in general is largely defined by your reaction to the Bride. No, the audience wasn't slighting Thurman; rather the audience was using the closing credits as a way to show off, for the audience largely consisted of film geeks, the sort of moviegoers who gladly arrive an hour and a half before showtime in order to stand in line outside the theater and be assured of getting a good seat.

Director/writer Quentin Tarantino, an ex-video store clerk, used to be one of these film geeks (and to a certain extent, he still is). And like the geek who wants to show off his special powers to the mere mortals, Tarantino likes to show off his knowledge, which is both one of the more endearing aspects of the Kill Bill movies, as well as one of the limiting factors. It's endearing to see Tarantino lavish attention on great international stars (such as the aforementioned Gordon Liu and Sonny Chiba) who are unrecognizable to the vast majority of American moviegoers. It's endearing to see Tarantino and soundtrack composer Robert Rodriguez riffing on the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone with direct borrowings from Ennio Morricone's great scores for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. But it means Kill Bill exists more as pastiche and homage than as an original work.

To a certain degree, the movie depends upon audience members making the cinematic connections, on being "in" on the jokes. Without this knowledge, filmgoers will still likely have fun with these movies, but a whole level of meaning is then missing. In Kill Bill, Tarantino lets the film geek inside him take control of the movie making. This is a movie for the geeks, for the people who know Japanese anime and samurai movies, for people who know Spaghetti Westerns and Hong Kong action cinema.

Both Kill Bill films share a similar affection for international action genres; however, the movies have a somewhat different feel. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is more over the top. It gives us swordsmen who soar with gravity defying acrobatics, and it gives us piles of severed limbs courtesy of the Bride's lethal sword. Kill Bill Vol. 2 ramps down the body count and even takes time to develop relationships. We learn more about Budd (aka Sidewinder). We even learn he's Bill's brother. We learn more about the Bride's relationship with Bill. We didn't even see Bill's face in Vol. 1. Now we get David Carradine talking in slow, measured tones as he goes on and on (Bill loves to hear himself talk) about his theories and preferences. And we see the lazy anxiety in Budd's face when he learns the Bride will likely be targeting him next ("Maybe we deserve to die," he says).

Tarantino is taking his time here with things that got glossed over in Vol. 1, such as dialogue. But while the dialogue in Vol. 2 is a big improvement over Vol. 1, it's nowhere near on the same level as Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. You won't find anything as delightfully daft as John Travolta's discourse on Big Macs from Pulp Fiction or as wonderfully petty as the argument about names/colors from Reservoir Dogs. No, here Tarantino is working with relatively simplistic characters.

Regardless of the faux existential longings, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is all about action and deceptive plot revelations. Tarantino is less interested here in creating real flesh-and-blood characters than he is in weaving an outrageous revenge yarn that allows him to play with his favorite genres. So even while the dialogue is a definite improvement over Vol. 1, it's somewhat plodding compared to Tarantino at his best.

These characters didn't bring out the best in Tarantino the writer, but the situations and action set pieces have left Tarantino the director positively giddy. He pulls out all the stops with respect to camera angles, lighting, editing, and music. This is an amazingly inventive and playful movie in which Tarantino takes delight in upsetting our expectations. For example, he stages the movie's most impressive sword fight inside a mobile home that is sitting in the desert. With so much open space outside the trailer, Tarantino places the battle within claustrophobic confines. Likewise, a few minutes earlier, Tarantino places one of the movie's most audacious scenes within a wooden coffin buried six feet deep, where he shows us the heroine's plight by using a cross section of earth and coffin that reveals twisted contours of dirt filling the grave and the Bride desperately trying to maintain her cool while devising a means of escaping an ugly death of suffocation. In such scenes, Tarantino has purposefully reigned in the scope of his action sequences in favor of more intimate settings.

In Kill Bill Vol. 2, you won't find anything like the massive fight sequence staged in a Japanese tea house from Kill Bill Vol. 1. Even the movie's climatic battle upsets our expectations by backing away from action genre histrionics in favor of dramatics that involve (of all things) motherly love. It's a difficult confrontation to pull off — Bill vs. the Bride — because the entire movie leads up to this moment (like Capt. Willard's journey to find Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now). How can it be anything but a disappointment if played on the same scale as the aforementioned tea house sequence? But Tarantino aims for something different altogether, as he makes the scene depend almost entirely on Carradine and our interest in the words that issue from his lips.

David Carradine scores big here as Bill. This is arguably the finest characterization of his career. Tarantino had originally courted Warren Beatty to play Bill, and Beatty would no doubt have brought an intriguing dynamic to the role (I'm imagining a charismatic lounge lizard with psychotic undercurrents). But Carradine quickly wins us over with his loquacious cold-blooded assassin. We never really like Bill. We fear him every moment he's on the screen. But at the same time he transfixes our attention with the contradictions that he embodies, the grace contrasted with the murderous intensity, the gentleness contrasted with the viciousness, the fatherly concern contrasted with the deadly short temper ("I overreacted," he explains to the Bride as his excuse for the wedding party massacre.)

Michael Madsen is almost as good as Carradine. His Budd has rejected the life of an assassin as given to him by his brother Bill. Now Budd lives in the desert in a none-too-luxurious mobile home while earning his pocket change as a bouncer at a strip joint (the "My Oh My Club"). We don't know exactly why he deserted his brother's assassin ring, but his ironic smile and his gentle eyes tell us there is much more going on beneath the surface.

While the movie largely depends upon Uma Thurman's portrayal of the Bride, it's easy to take her contribution for granted. Tarantino doesn't give her many words, preferring to let her sword (and her lightning fast hands) do the talking. And people who don't talk much tend to get overlooked. But regardless of the carnage she leaves in her wake, the Bride has our sympathies, which is one of the more amazing things about this movie.

But the most amazing thing about the Kill Bill movies is their adherence to a simple principle that says a movie's title — even if it's only two words long — can summarize an entire movie: Kill Bill. Yep, that's what it boils down to. And in such a simple example of plotting, it's style that makes the difference, which is where Tarantino comes in. He devoted his skills to a minor effort, where his filmmaking imagination was put to work breathing life into a simple revenge yarn, but he shows in spades the value of style — in his ability to stage tremendous action set pieces and then back off and stage small intimate scenes, to value carnage in one scene and to value the spoken word in the next. Like his character Bill, Tarantino the director is a mass of contradictions, which is good because it keeps his audience off balance. We never know exactly where Tarantino will lead us, when he'll pull together the clues that he has dropped, how he'll drop a major character revelation, or when he'll riff on the genres/actors that he loves. Tarantino might be a film geek, but he has the skill and vision to make geekdom look almost heavenly.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Miramax Pictures
Movie Web site: Kill Bill



Photo credits: © 2004 Miramax Pictures. All rights reserved.