In the opening minutes of Kill Bill - Vol. 2, The Bride Who Would Not Be Blasted, Burned, or Buried Alive - The Bride Who Would Not Be Denied Revenge, for short - addresses the camera. She does this in front of a rear-projection of a highway cutting through a Southwest desert. Filmed in black and white, with the lens itself seemingly caked in a dusty haze of grit, she drives a long convertible straight at the audience and explains that the last time you saw her, last fall, she had a bone to pick with Bill.
She fought her way upstream, she goes on. She made a list of the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) who murdered her wedding party and left her pregnant and dying. When she woke from a four-year coma she headed to the Los Angeles suburbs to dispatch the first killer (Vivica A. Fox). Her voice rises and she recalls how she next flew to Japan and took on a Tokyo mob boss (Lucy Liu) and her Crazy 88 foot soldiers. Now three killers remain, and she will take them down, she assures, oh, yes, and when finds this Bill (David Carradine) she is going to ...
Well, it rhymes with drill Bill.
And this jittery little bonbon acts not just as a recap. It's an equivalent of those tolling bells in the Rocky movies, the ones that signal a showdown. It's also a fabulously overblown tease.
With most movies, say a movie like The Punisher or even The Alamo, it takes only a few minutes to realize we're not headed anywhere special. There are those films you trust, that promise something, deliver a taste, and build up a giddy suspense with the audience - the movies you'd follow anywhere. Then there are the rarer ones that do all that, but when they deliver, give you something utterly surprising.
You get what you're expecting; you just don't get it the way you've been expecting to get it.
The movie the Bride is referring to, of course, is an example of the latter, Kill Bill - Vol. 1 from Quentin Tarantino, the madman, motor-mouth, pop encyclopediaist director, and he is all about Christmas Eve: he likes the presents under the tree better than the present themselves. He likes the bus ride and couldn't care less about the destination. He'd rather deliver the war drums and skip the war. He's an anticipation junkie, and with this second part of his pop epic, he overdoses.
A lot is made of his wallowing in dime store genres like kung fu catfights, blaxploitation, and crime flicks. But he's more like a conduit of a larger movie ether, just an instrument pulling in disparate influences, enthusiasms, and images. One rarely mentioned is that low-angle shot of John Travolta strutting down the boulevard in Saturday Night Fever. Tarantino returns again and again to that strut, to pairs of feet, going somewhere, only this time, it's a mosey and a halt.
For instance, an assassin blasts into a room and winds up talking about how to read a home pregnancy test; one showdown is cut short by a blast of shotgun and never resumed; and the battle to end all battles is more like pistols at dawn - over and done with in a couple of seconds. We get an flashback to the wedding party slaughter, and Tarantino moves it along a knife's edge of anxiety, then withholds the slaughter.
Kill Bill - Vol. 2, a war film of a different sort, is stretched in ways few filmmakers would dare, or be allowed. This is what you can do when Miramax loves you so much that rather than cut your pop epic, maybe rein you in and deliver a pop classic, they cut your film in two and release the halves seven months apart.
So now that we can see this whole four-hour homage to unrepentant excess and the B-movies of Tarantino's youth, what we have is something like Chinese dim sum: dozens of appetizers, many tasty, some repellent, a dumping of spaghetti western, a spring roll of a flea-market story, that might fill you up. But you'd never mistake it for a real meal.
So why do I want seconds?
And it raises another: Is Kill Bill - Vol. 2 the mediocre second half of a terrific whole, or the more nuanced second half of a shapeless mess? Someday soon we'll be able to see both side by side. But before you can answer, here's something to complicate matters further: that Tarantino has mainstream audiences posing questions like that, the fact that audiences and critics are even arguing over a movie again, means his agenda is going fine.
That these films come from a unapologetic admiration for one's own personal cannon of classics, low-rent junk or otherwise, rather than the usual Citizen Kanes and Godfathers we've been commanded to appreciate, is nothing less than exhilarating.
But as the second part of a whole, Kill Bill -Vol. 2, which follows the Bride (Uma Thurman) to the end of her "roaring rampage of revenge," is a screech and 180 degree U-turn in the opposite direction from the bloody martial arts universe of Vol. 1. These films couldn't be more different. The first was a compression of nearly every Asian action genre of the past 40 years: samurai, kung fu, anime, etc.
Now East meets West.
With its wide-open expanses and iconic scenes of enemies sharing a little breathing space on a creaky front porch, Vol. 2 is a distillation of the American western. But more specifically, it's a distillation of the American western as filtered through an Italian master (Sergio Leone); who in turn filtered his ideas through a Japanese master (Akira Kurosawa); who in turn looked to an American master (John Ford) for ideas. But that's a Tarantino movie, a cultural fun house, where the fun is knowing that every line of dialogue, every song on the soundtrack, every twist of the plot hints at something else, and has been placed there out of genuine adoration.
There's a story, but the Kill Bill movies have nothing to do with storytelling. Which is maybe why the pacing of Vol. 2 seems slightly off. It's not remotely as bloody violent as the first installment; it's more emotionally violent. But then, we haven't been a bit emotionally invested ourselves in these characters. Tarantino fills in the character details probably only he couldn't care about. Vol. 1 had so much style and enthusiasm you could care less about depth.
There are maybe two scenes in this new film that come close: The Bride's martial arts training with a white-eyebrowed Chinese master (Gordon Liu); and The Bride's trailer park throw-down with eye-patched assassin Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah). The rest turns out to be a love story, and finally something more heartfelt that feels phony and strained. Again, Tarantino doesn't want to arrive at where he's going. And so he delays again and again, but with some fantastic dialogue, and the digressions the curly cues eventually add up to a ridiculously silly good time. That's a compliment. When The Bride and Bill finally get to it, they pause to talk a while about Superman; it turns out Superman is unique among superheroes: too alien to mesh with humanity, too human to relate to aliens. And that damage is irreversible. It's a lovely grace note for a four-hour comic book. There's no mistaking where its heart rests.
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