Kill Bill: Tarantino gravitas


It’s hard to believe Pulp Fiction came out almost ten years ago. I was just beginning to get into movies around then, and I remember that was the Moment of Quentin Tarantino. Already practically a genre in himself, he was the “It” poster-boy of cinematic cool, as well as its most loquacious enfant terrible.

Since then, he’s somehow managed to remain a power player without ever quite matching the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp. Kill Bill, all two volumes of it, is the closest he’s come to making waves anywhere near the magnitude of the nouvelle tsunami he kicked up in 1994, mainly because of the ultraviolent bloodsport of the first part. The second installment may arouse controversy of a different kind: whether or not it marks a significant advance in the director’s development.

Volume 2 picks up more or less where Volume 1 left off, with the central character of the Bride (Uma Thurman) midway through her quest for revenge against the assassination squad who gunned her down in a wedding chapel and left her for dead, along with the entire wedding party and her unborn baby. As we learned in Vol. 1, everyone else was dead, but the Bride (and one other person, revealed in Vol. 2) survived-and when she awoke one day from a four-year coma, there was hell to pay. As a former member of the aforesaid squad, the Bride, aka Black Mamba (and multiple other aliases), had no qualms hunting the others down and dispatching them, one by one, through a spiffy combination of martial arts, knife-throwing, and samurai swordplay. Vol. 1 took care of Vernita Green, aka Copperhead (Vivica Fox), and O-Ren Ishii, aka Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu); left to make Vol. 2 interesting is Budd, aka Sidewinder (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver, aka California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah), and, of course, eponymous Bill, the Snake Charmer (a terrific David Carradine), the Bride’s former boss, mentor, and lover.

That’s all you need to know for plot, though there are several twists-the most crucial of which will come as no surprise to those who saw Vol. 1. As in the first part, as indeed in all his films, Tarantino splices, dices, and rearranges narrative structure as neatly as the Bride hews her victims’ body parts. Also true to Tarantino form, he both creates and deflates characters of mythic proportions, and pays rapturous narrative and stylistic tribute to the innumerable revenge-driven genre movies (A, B, and trash) he’s seen and loved. There are more obscure movie references crammed in than most viewers, including me, can possibly identify. While the primary genres of choice in Vol. 1 were anime, yakuza, and samurai flicks, plus a bit of blaxploitation vibe, Vol. 2 is essentially a Western, with a couple of nods to Hitchcock and an extended interlude of classic old-school kungfu.

For that reason, perhaps, Vol. 2 follows a much more leisurely, almost meditative, pace than Vol. 1. In contrast to the over-the-top mayhem of the first movie, the action sequences here are economized – sparse, short, and to the point – though there’s a pretty brutal showdown between Thurman and Hannah. The fights are flanked by wide shots of solitary figures against grandly desolate vistas (most of the movie takes place in or around El Paso, Texas), extended flashbacks (the most striking filmed in stark black and white), and lots of history involving the Bride and her principal adversary, Bill.

Is Vol. 2 better than Vol. 1? That depends on whether you believe Tarantino capable of emotional depth – a trait wholly absent (and wholly irrelevant) in Vol. 1, but on which Vol. 2 stakes everything. His portrayal of the relationship between the Bride and Bill has unexpected gravitas, though for that he owes a lot to both his actors – especially the latter, who manages to exude both tenderness and menace with incredible delicacy. There’s a brooding, elegiac quality to his confrontations with Thurman – sharpened, rather than undercut, by the loopy Tarantino-stamped dialogue – that lends credibility to the idea of a deep bond irremediably violated by them both. And the one element of their story that could have degenerated into utterly unconvincing twaddle holds up surprisingly well: you can almost believe in them as a happy, loving (though admittedly psychotic) domestic household.

Yet while Vol. 2 strives to be more soulful, the cheerfully soulless Vol. 1 is more kinetic and more fun, albeit in a sick way. Even as I admired the interactions between Bill and the Bride, I found myself missing the overkill of Lucy Liu and the Crazy 88. That may explain why the part of Vol. 2 I found the most enjoyable was “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” a spot-on spoof of all those old martial arts films featuring an imperious white-bearded demigod (here played hilariously by Gordon Liu) who sat in a temple atop a green mountain and imparted infallible instruction (here to Uma Thurman) on how to whoop ass. Not only does Tarantino provide good laughs and a good back story; he deftly uses the episode as a springboard for a virtuosic, (literally) knuckle-biting sequence showing how the Bride is able to get herself out of a (literally) tight spot. Such moments exemplify, for me, Tarantino’s peculiar brilliance. They have little to do with emotional maturity, but they’re what make his films watchable – and identifiably his.

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