Finally, Kill Bill Vol. 2 has invaded our cinematic lives. And it was worth the wait, even if this second half of Quentin Tarantino’s elephantine movie-geek wet dream does some major gear shifting away from the explosive cinematic flurry of Vol. 1.
Where that first film was cinematically playful, Vol. 2 relies much more on its script. For the most part, this is a good thing, even if director Tarantino — in taking a backseat to writer Tarantino — keeps threatening to lapse into the lazy-filmmaking style of having his characters talk endlessly (as they did in so much of Pulp Fiction). However, he mostly sidesteps this pitfall — and people who complain that Vol. 2 isn’t as stylish as Vol. 1 are mistaking a barrage of action sequences for style.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that those critics who are bobbing about in an ocean of praise for the more mature, deeply meaningful Tarantino they see in the new film are taking Vol. 2 far too seriously. I’m reminded of people telling me that Pulp Fiction was a powerful story about redemption, since Samuel L. Jackson’s character lived to movie’s end because he had opted out of the criminal world, while John Travolta’s character died because he didn’t. (Personally, I thought Travolta’s character cashed in his chips because he was always taking bathroom breaks.) And while the redemption scenario — showing virtue rewarded and evil punished — would surely have warmed the cockles of the old movie-production-code folks, Tarantino’s most famous film is hardly weighty stuff.
Much the same is true in the director’s two most recent films. When all is said and done, both volumes of Kill Bill are all about motherhood and its supposed redemptive power. This is hinted at in Vol. 1, with The Bride/”Black Mamba”/Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) going on her revenge mission in part for the supposed murder of her unborn child. The theme likewise rears its head in the white-picket-fence life of Vernita Green/”Copperhead” (Vivica A. Fox) and her own daughter, and even in the scenario where The Bride whacks an underage would-be-assassin on the backside and sends him home to his mother, rather than killing him.
And it’s in Vol. 2 in spades, even down to the initials of the topless bar (My Oh My, spelling “mom”) where Budd (Michael Madsen) — the brother of the titular Bill — works as a bouncer. And there’s an hysterically quirky scene involving reading the results of a home-pregnancy test, where The Bride talks a female assassin out of killing her, owing to the test coming back positive.
But how deep is this stuff really? And how much of it is just another echo of devices used in the junk cinema that Tarantino feeds off of and elevates to the level of junk art? As to the first question: not so much. But a big yes to question two.
Vol. 2 is a movie about convoluted revenges, and attempted ones — and also a movie about the kinds of movies its maker loves. The new film’s most indelible element is its hokey rear-projected opening, in which The Bride brings us up to date on Vol. 1, which Tarantino follows with a similarly black and white flashback of the events that led up to the massacre that left Thurman’s character for dead — images that evoke John Ford’s The Searchers one minute and Sergio Leone’s funereal-paced Westerns the next.
It’s a movie, too, that features a nasty-tempered martial-arts master (played by Shaw Brothers veteran Gordon Liu — but with Tarantino’s voice!) decked out in obvious makeup and a long white beard, the latter of which he flips in moments of irritation, like a villain with a scarf in an old melodrama.
Further, it’s a movie where people try to fight with samurai swords in a mobile home, only to be thwarted by insufficient headroom — they can’t even get the damned things out of their scabbards!
And finally, it’s a movie that knows all the cliches — and isn’t afraid to take them to their logical conclusions.
Vol. 2 does have a quirky dark side, mostly in its depiction of The Bride, her daughter (newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine) and Bill (an unexpectedly brilliant David Carradine) as a really twisted family unit; yet even this isn’t much more than a passingly disturbing part of the overall joke. And that’s ultimately what this film is — a great, glorious, wildly inventive joke, milking everything that appeals to Tarantino about the movies. Implausible plot contrivances, striking imagery, bad dialogue, guest stars (even the venerable Sid Haig pops up as a bartender), over-the-top action and the just-plain lovably silly — Tarantino tries to overdo every bit of it, aiming to create the ultimate movie.
What’s scary is how close he gets to reaching his goal. Thematically, Vol. 2 is not a whole lot different from The Punisher, which also opens this week; yet the path the former takes to reach the same end is another matter entirely. Tarantino’s latest — as far as pure moviemaking goes — is virtually in a league of its own.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke