Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Director : Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay : Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Uma Thurman (The Bride, aka Black Mamba), David Carradine (Bill, aka Snake Charmer), Michael Madsen (Budd, aka Sidewinder), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver, aka California Mountain Snake), Gordon Liu (Pai Mei), Michael Parks (Esteban Vihaio), Perla Haney-Jardine (B.B.), Chris Nelson (Tommy Plympton), Bo Svenson (Reverend Harmony), Jeannie Epper (Mrs. Harmony)
The second part of Quentin Tarantino’s unjustly cleaved exploitation epic Kill Bill is as vastly different from the first as the first was from all the other films he had made up until that point. A grindhouse homage to chop-stocky ultraviolence and vengeance-fueled heroics, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was an over-the-top action extravaganza, literally exhausting in its headlong rush from one candy-colored setpiece to the next. For all its technical and aesthetic brilliance, though, the first half was somewhat lacking for its dearth of emotional resonance and character development.
That lacking is thoroughly rectified in Kill Bill: Volume 2, which brings a genuinely surprising depth of feeling to the proceedings by filling in the emotional and narrative gaps left hanging in the first volume. Volume 2 is decidedly less violent (at least in terms of sheer quantity) and much more in line with Tarantino’s earlier films, which mixed heavy doses of pop-culture-laden philosophy into their genre mix-mash. Those who thrilled to Volume 1’s nonstop orgy of hilariously gratuitous bloodletting may find Volume 2 somewhat slowgoing, but I think it’s a better movie for it. As he did in Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino bravely reveals a softer side, and even though his sense of romanticism is informed entirely by the highs and lows of melodrama, once thrown into his cinematic blender they take on entirely new dimensions.
Having already offed two members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), the group that massacred her entire wedding party four years earlier, the Bride (Uma Thurman) is still going about her business of vengeance. She has two left to take down—Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed Elle Driver (aka California Mountain Snake) and Michael Madsen’s Budd (aka Sidewinder), before getting to the big man in charge, the eponymous Bill (David Carradine).
While the look and tone of Volume 1 was informed mainly by Chinese “wuxia” kung-fu films, Volume 2 grounds its narrative in the visual and aural traditions of the spaghetti western. It’s got Sergio Leone written all over it, from the penetrating use of widescreen close-ups, to Robert Rodriguez’s Ennio Morricone-inspired music. Set almost entirely in the bleak desert around El Paso and in Bill’s Mexican hideaway south of the border, Kill Bill: Volume 2 trades in the richly saturated comic book colors and enormous sets of Volume 1 for a desolate and spare look composed of dusty sand dunes, trashed out trailer homes, ancient graveyards, and back highways created with purposefully shoddy rear projection. The one visual respite is an extended flashback sequence in which we see the rigorous training the Bride endured at the hands of Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), the martial arts master who taught Bill, her mentor.
Tarantino piles on some gloriously screen-ripping scenes, including a wicked swordfight between the Bride and Elle that is somehow contained within the narrow confines of a trailer home. There is also a heart-clutching sequence in which the Bride, rendered impotent with a shotgun blast of rock salt, is literally buried alive by Budd. Tarantino heightens the impact of the claustrophobia first by switching from the ’Scope wide frame down to an academy aspect ratio and then by denying us visuals altogether as the dirt is piled down on top of her coffin, creating one of the most effective moments of terror I’ve ever experienced by sound alone.
Much more is required of Uma Thurman emotionally this time around, although there is still plenty of physicality to her role. Thurman again proves that she was a perfect choice for the movie, as she successfully fills all the roles Tarantino throws at her, from victim, to hero, to doting mother. Likewise, David Carradine turns in one of the best performances of his career as Bill, making it impossible to imagine Tarantino’s first choice, Warren Beatty, in the role. Carradine carries with him the requisite gravitas of a man who was referred to throughout Volume 1, but never really seen, which turned him into a variation on Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.
Bill doesn’t get a grand screen entrance, though; rather, when we first see him, it’s during a flashback of the marriage massacre when the Bride hears him playing his signature bamboo pipe on the front porch. (It’s the first of many instances in which Tarantino deviously and brilliantly subverts the typical expectations.) Particularly in this scene, Carradine projects a sense of controlled fury; although Bill never once raises his voice, it is always clear that he is filled to the brim with violence just waiting to be unleashed, which makes him even more dangerous than if he were just a run-of-the-mill psychotic mastermind. Tarantino plays up all the associations we have with Carradine’s long-running role on Kung Fu, making him seem both familiar and oddly strange at the same time.
Although nearly half an hour longer than Volume 1, Volume 2 feels shorter and tighter, largely because it gets down to the business of humanizing the Bride and avoids the inherent repetitiveness of action sequence after action sequence. Of all things, Volume 2 turns out to be Tarantino’s version of an old-fashioned love story, with Bill’s putting a bullet in the Bride’s head as a sort of warped variation on the ultimate break-up. Because they were once lovers (the child she was carrying, which she thought she had lost, is his), a fierce new dimension evolves once she finally gets to the end of her journey and finds herself face to face with her nemesis/lover/mentor.
The big surprise is that it doesn’t end with a massive swordfight as one might expect, but rather with a confrontation that is more inwardly than externally violent. It carries with it all the satisfaction one would expect from a movie with a one-dimensional title like Kill Bill, but without resorting to the obvious. And that, perhaps, is Tarantino’s greatest strength as a filmmaker and why all the complaints about him simply riffing on what’s been done before will never matter: He always makes the old seem new and exciting and he never, ever does exactly what you would expect.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © 2004 Miramax Films