Tarantino has called Kill Bill his homage to "grind house" cinema, the kung fu and blaxploitation flicks he saw at roach-motel movie houses in the 1970s. His enthusiasm got the better of him and Kill Bill turned out to be so long that Miramax released it in two "volumes" that last four hours.
Kill Bill's two halves don't look exactly the same. Vol. 1 proved to be the fun, ultra-violent, popcorn movie, while Vol. 2 arrives as a deliberately paced, character-driven commentary on genre films. Casual conversations still erupt with battles to the death, but Vol. 2 belongs in the art house, not the grind house.
Vol. 2 begins as its predecessor did, with the off-screen Bill (David Carradine) shooting the badly beaten Bride (Thurman). Tarantino segues to The Bride driving a convertible in glossy, 1940s-style black-and-white, recapping to the camera her plan to exact revenge from her former lover Bill and the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
Tarantino continues the scrambled chronology and chapter headings of the first film, flashing back to the pregnant Bride's informal wedding rehearsal in El Paso. Bill himself arrives for a soft-spoken but tense conversation that unexpectedly leads to the massacre that leaves The Bride comatose. When Vol. 1 showed The Bride wake up and start slicing up her ex-cohorts, Tarantino served a fizzy pop culture cocktail including anime, girl-group rockabilly songs and wildly choreographed sword fights.
Instead of more of the same, Vol. 2 focuses more closely on characters like Budd (Michael Madsen), a zillion-dollar killer turned boozing, titty-bar bouncer. We can't help but notice how Madsen's gone to seed since Reservoir Dogs -- he peers out from under his cowboy hat like a flabby tortoise.
Though fewer and farther between, Vol. 2's suspense scenes still engross the audience, especially The Bride's escape from Budd's claustrophobic deathtrap and her high-impact brawl with Daryl Hannah's one-eyed femme fatale. Hannah bites deliciously into her role, wearing a patent-leather eye patch and sort of a glam, feminine version of Pulp Fiction's hit man suits.
Vol. 2's most lighthearted chapter flashes back to The Bride's martial arts training with a cruel, 1,000-year-old monk (Gordon Liu) who tests her mercilessly while stroking his long, silky beard with spidery fingers. Tarantino gives the sequence the grainy color, hyperbolic zooms and campy acting of the cheesiest chop-sockey flick.
The film primarily proves to be a love letter to Carradine, similar to how Jackie Brown was Tarantino's mash note to Pam Grier. Fortunately, Carradine's sinister Zen charisma holds the screen more forcefully than Grier did. Carradine's calmly ominous delivery brings out the unspoken threats behind Bill's deceptively peaceful lines, but the film holds its master villain too much in reserve.
Kill Bill may disappoint some of the previous film's fans: It started as a guilty pleasure, but the filmmaker now wants us to take it seriously. Tarantino explores passion gone wrong and the tensions between former lovers questioning their own murderous natures. The Bride becomes as much prey as predator, but Thurman still puts steel in her performance, and when the plot reveals its ingenious twist, the actress conveys a storm of mixed emotions.
At more than two hours, Kill Bill Vol. 2 never bores, but it features too many restrained exchanges that barely nudge the plot forward. Scenes like Thurman's sit-down with an aging Latino pimp (Gordon Parks, who, like Liu, plays different roles in both films) deserve to be DVD extras. Kill Bill could only benefit from a shorter version, something paced quickly enough to go down in one sitting. Such "a roaring rampage of revenge," as The Bride herself describes the story, calls for a short cut.
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