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Non-Review Review: Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Another film, another only very vaguely controversial decision from Darren. I actually prefer Kill Bill, Vol. 2 to the Kill Bill, Vol. 1. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I like Japanese samurai swords, massive brawls, over-the-top violence and kitchen knife fights as much as the next man, but there’s just something about the second half of this “roaring rampage of revenge” which appeals to me.

Careful with your knives at the table...

I’m still waiting for Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, a near-mythological anthology film from Tarantino which will unite – physically and spiritually – both halves of his epic revenge saga. The two movies complement each other perfectly, with the mood fluctuating perfectly between the two. If I owned them on DVD, I’d love to sit down and watch all four hours of the film in one sitting. I reckon it would be a thing of beauty. However, cutting the film in two both hinders and benefits the interesting dichotomy that Tarantino was going for.

Volume 2 is a more stately affair. It’s slower, it’s more reflective. It’s populated with real characters rather than simply interesting ciphers – that notion continues here, with the Bride herself addressing the audience and referring to the trailers to the movie. Though Volume 1 allowed Tarantino a little space to indulge his sharp wit and knack for dialogue amidst its incredibly staged carnage, here he really has room to breath. I’m about to commit another mortal sin for a Tarantino fan, and concede that this movie features some of the best dialogue in the director’s career. I loved Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, but something here just works. It’s easy to point to the most obvious examples – Bill’s “Superman” speech which has seeped into popular consciousness – but really most of the stuff works really well, even the little touches.

I remarked in my review of the first film that, in many ways, the Bride is embarking on a meta-fictional journey in her rip-roaring rampage of revenge. The suburbia and Tokyo she visited in the first film were not real versions of either, just heavily stylised conceptions drawn from other films – notice, for example that everyone on the plane has their own samurai sword. If she spent last film in a martial arts revenge flick, here she navigates across to a Sergio Leone Western. The bright exaggerated lights of neon Tokyo give way to the vast and rugged deserts. The pretense of honour, with complicated swordplay and face-to-face confrontation, gives way to cold and hard pragmatism. Two of the three names remaining on the list are people who, for lack of a better phrase, bring guns to knife fights. The third brings poison. All the big moments seem almost consciously… anti-climactic. There’s no joy to be found in killing here, just the grim satisfaction of continuing to breath.

It’s the suffering which really defines this film, though. Yes, the Bride endured some horror in the first film, but here there are really no “good deaths”. Nearly all of the characters die in agony, slowly – and all of them see it coming (in a literal sense, not in an abstract “the Bride is back” sort of way – they all know that they’re dead before they are). Whereas the deaths in the first part were all relatively swift, here everyone suffers. One of the most effective sequences of the film (and one of the best Tarantino has ever shot) finds an individual locked in darkness. What little light there is is slowly and effectively removed, until we (and the victim) are left in utter darkness. It would be easy to cut away, or to give us “Hollywood darkness” (dimming the light a bit and pretending the actor can’t see). Tarantino has no such mercy. There’s an extended sequence in complete darkness, with only panicked breathing and the ominous noise outside to be heard. It’s more than a little claustrophobic.

The second installment does attract a bit of flack for being the slower of the two. It’s fair to comment that the frantic energy of Volume 1 is gone, replaced with a solemn mood. Although there’s a significant amount of gallows humour here, Tarantino has wisely toned down the more “out there” and colourful exploitation-y elements (like the Bride’s iconic tracksuit – modeled on Bruce Lee’s – or the “Pussy Wagon” that the Bride stole from Buck – which actually has its absence noted). The movie begins with a slow black-and-white sequence set before the massacre, one brooding with tension. We saw the aftermath of the carnage in the last film, but here Tarantino is more interested in the cause – the mood before the slaughter. Dread descends on the surroundings like an ominous Ennio Morricone score. Cynics would call these boring or anti-climactic, but Tarantino and his players use them to provide shading to the bright and colourful carnage which came before.

Tarantino has the direction down. He knows the styles he wants to consciously ape – notice the stereotypical way the camera zooms in and out from the ‘kung-fu’ section to the Pei-Mei stroking his not unimpressive goatee. He demonstrated in the last movie that he can handle the crazy mess that is an amazing kung-fu sequence, but here he has to do more with less. And he surpasses himself. In fairness, his visual shoutouts to the Western elements of the movie aren’t as obvious as those to Eastern cinema, because we’re all quite used to them at this stage.

Over the past decade I’ve found Tarantino in peculiar situation of being a better director than those he’s trying to pay homage to. Unlike his early career, with original films like True Romance (of which he wrote the screenplay), Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs allowing him to showcase his own talents, films like Kill Bill and Deathproof feel like the director is attempting to channel something which isn’t really him. In fairness, he has also (at least with Kill Bill, maybe not with Deathproof) produced an example which stands with the finest of the genre he is attempting to homage, but it still feels like a pastiche, an incomplete film. It would take Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino to truly merge his own nostalgic attitude to exploitation with his own unique vision in a way that really worked. It’s a small complaint, and perhaps an unnecessarily vague one (it isn’t as good as I imagine it could possible be), but it’s really the only one I can level at this film. Which is quite a compliment.

Uma Thurman has never been better. I’ve never been a huge fan of her work, but this represents her best work. Tarantino has the capacity to draw out the best in his actors, and it probably helps that the two were intimately involved in the creation of the character and the saga. However, the real star is David Carradine as the eponymous Bill. He gets a lot more screentime here, and a lot more character. He gets a lot of dialogue, which Carradine pulls off with aplomb. Remember that stereotypical Bond baddie who enjoys long pseudo-philosophical conversations with the secret agent? Bill is that old cliché executed as perfectly as it’s possible for it to be executed. He rambles and gets off point, and is full of old stories and pop culture references. He has a unique and warped, but well considered way of looking at world. But he’s no less terrifying for it. He’s cold and vicious and petty, all masked under calm smiles and friendly talk. Carradine is pretty near perfect in the role.

Kill Bill Volume 2 is a quieter movie than its predecessor, and – I’d argue – a better one. The Bride has roared and rampaged, until all that’s left is just a bitter emptiness. The movie lacks the wonderful complexity of Inglourious Basterds, but it’s still a fantastically entertaining film for those with a fondness for old-fashioned revenge sagas. I want to see both films together, as I have a sneaking suspicion that they will both be the strong for it.

8 Responses

  1. Good review. I’d say both installments have their merits. Personally, Kill Bill 2’s a lot better at characterisation. I think my outstanding highlight is how much you feel sorry for Bud, even though he’s obviously got it coming Madsen is stunning.

    Really don’t care much for the 35 minutes of intense dialogue at the end though.

    • I actually love the 35 minutes of dialogue. It’s a hackneyed cliché that the hero and villain share a philosophical discussion, but I think Tarantino manages to make it work as well as it’s possible for that “two mortal enemies converse” bit to work. It helps that I love his dialogue.

  2. KB2 definitely bears up well on repeat viewings
    seriously though, if he had have put these two together it would have been one great film
    but then he doesnt really like cutting stuff out

    • I kinda feel like I should put a day aside and watch ’em back-to-back when I get the time. But then there’s a lot of stuff like that. Nah, c’mon, Quentin – release the bloody deluxe one-movie package already!

  3. Dude, I love this. I also find room in my heart to love both parts the same, but, y’know, you can really tell a lot about a person by which Kill Bill he likes.

  4. I consider Kill Bill one film, but if I’m pressed, of course I’ll go with volume 2.

    • They certainly seem like they’d fit together well and it does just flow nearly perfectly from one to the other.

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