Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2004)

6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2

At first, many fans, myself included, were annoyed that “Kill Bill” was split into two halves. This was before the “Harry Potters,” “Twilights,” and “Hunger Games” of the world made such behavior all too common. Being forced to wait a year for the end of the story was ridiculous. It came off like Harvey Weinstein being his Scissorhanded self, clipping a film in half to double his profits and chances at Oscar gold. Of course, the decision was motivated by those things. However, in retrospect, the split worked in the film’s favor. A complete “Kill Bill” would run just over four hours. That’s fine for home video but would probably be asking too much of theater audiences.

Moreover, the two halves have wildly different tones. “Vol. 1” is big, bold, bloody and action-packed. “Vol. 2” is more reserved, conversationally paced, with a melancholy heart beating under it. Packed, clever dialogue is traded more frequently then fists. If volume one showed what the Bride was capable of, the second volume explores her motivations more fully. Packaging such different parts together might have led to some tonal whiplash on the audience’s behalf. Part two doesn’t start with a rowdy knife-fight. Instead, it begins with a slow-paced series of conversation, shot in soft black-and-white, concerning not samurai swords but wedding arrangements. 

Part two is different in another way. The first half of Tarantino’s epic kept Bill off-screen, the man represented by his swaying voice, discussed in hush tones by other characters. The second film has Bill present within its opening minutes.  The conversations between Thurman and Carradine shed light on the characters’ relationship and attitudes. The Bride and Bill loved each other, in a way. How couldn’t she, when Carradine makes Bill so effortlessly charming, a coolly mysterious man? The two actors mute their emotions but the attachment shines through anyway. The wedding chapel scene perfectly captures the hand-in-hand affection and resentment old lovers feel for each other. The chapter’s ending is expected but still comes of as shocking because of the emotions invested in the characters.

Bill had to be given a proper introduction. The film’s entire emotional resolution revolves around Beatrix and Bill’s relationship. We discover that the Bride suddenly abandoned her assassin life-style because she discovered she was pregnant. In turn, Bill’s violence and revenge was motivated by a wounded male ego. She left without telling him. Bill collects women, controlling them, feeling ownership over them. This information brings the film’s feminist subtext into sharper reflect. “Kill Bill” is all about an independent woman struggling against male entitlement. In this light, Beatrix’s alter-ego of the Bride becomes more then a Truffaut or Vicente Aranda references. The heroine is cast in the traditional role of bride and mother, to contrast against her defiantly nontraditional personality. She owns her womanhood in a battle against warped male egos. (This reading explains the Esteban Vihaio sequence which otherwise probably goes on too long.)

The mother part is especially important. “Vol. 1” ended with the revelation that the Bride’s daughter survived. She continues her Roaring Rampage of Revenge up until the moment she steps through Bill’s door and is confronted with her daughter. The expression on Uma’s face is heartbreaking, a thousand emotions washing over her. From here, the direction of “Kill Bill Vol. 2” shifts again. Bill isn’t a cookie-cutter bad guy, his motivations instead being all too human. He loves his daughter and is so warmly personable that you almost can’t believe he shot her mother in the head. Yet Bill owns up to his crime, even telling their daughter about it. The movie becomes a battle of parental rights. Both Bill and Beatrix were determined to raise their daughter a certain way. Their conflict was born out of this difference in opinion. Considering Tarantino was raised by a single mother, you can’t help but read into the film’s story decision. The final title card refers to the Bride as a lioness which is all too correct. Her power is tied directly to her feminity and her rights as a mother.

While addressing such complex issues, “Kill Bill Vol. 2” still functions as a fantastically entertaining action film and thriller. The film features perhaps the greatest catfight ever put to celluloid. It’s the film’s sole major action beat and one that makes a serious impression. Despite brief screen time together up to that point, there’s a fabulous rivalry between Beatrix Kiddo and Elle Driver. The two were rivals in combat and for Bill’s affection. Daryl Hannah gives a venomous, captivating performance. Her note pad inscribed monologue not only drips with malevolent intent but a wry sense of dark humor. Tarantino rather brilliantly sets this battle between two expert killers in a tiny, in-closed, shitty trailer. The two demolish the building, smashing through walls and over counters. Their combat is close and personal, smashing chairs, pulling hair, with cunt punts aplenty. Some of my favorite moments involve both actresses kicking each other down at the same time and creative uses of snuff-spit and TV antennas. The battle cumulates in a truly satisfying move, one that is unexpected at first and eagerly anticipated with repeat viewings. It’s a fabulously entertaining sequence and, considering the film’s climax is centered around dialogue, really stands out.

Though low on death-dealing action when compared to the first half, “Vol. 2” makes up in other ways. The first “Kill Bill” was mostly influenced by Japanese cinema. The second half shows more varied influences. Most notable is when the Bride is buried alive. The extreme-close ups on eyes and the stylized shots of nails hammered in the coffin lids recall the films of Lucio Fulci. The entire sequence, from its music to the shaky, dark camera work, all recall Italian horror. It’s a genuinely thrilling moment, invoking the audience’s claustrophobia while successfully playing up the Bride’s vulnerability. In that moment, it seems like her mission has failed. The live burial moves into the film’s second-most entertaining sequence. Pai Mei, a legendary Chinese character, proves massively entertaining. His dialogue, though cruel, is hugely quotable and memorable. Watching the Bride improve and prove herself is as satisfying as any other eighties training montage. Of course, with his focus on gritty detail, like bloody knuckles or the Bride striking a wall in her sleep, Tarantino dispels any clichés.

Despite its many fantastic attributes, “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” is not as consistently satisfying as its predecessor. Budd is not a problematic character. Michael Madsen plays him fantastically, making Tarantino’s thick dialogue sound like natural, redneck speak. Madsen’s mumbly delivery fits perfectly with the character’s personality. Budd is shaped as a tragic character. Despite being written as nothing but a white-trash loser, he comes the closest to finishing the Bride. More ironically, he’s the only one of Deadly Viper Assassination Squad Beatrix doesn’t finish off herself. So he’s a character worth spending time on. Having said that, did we really need to see so much of his shitty job? Did we need an extended scene of Budd getting chewed out by his boss or told to unclog the commode by a trashy stripper? Maybe it adds to the character, maybe it doesn’t. If “Kill Bill” had been one film instead of two, I suspect they would have been clipped either way. The scene in the chapel has some of the same problem, including a few too many unnecessary moments simply for the sake of local color.

The final act proves powerful, making up for any of the middle section’s small issues. Thurman and Carradine have such a natural chemistry together. I’m on record as a David Carradine fan here at Film Thoughts but few films gave him such an opportunity to show off his talent before. Bill fits the actor’s built-in charm so well while exposing him as a cool, thoughtful actor more then capable of delivering Tarantino’s dialogue. The film’s melancholy undercurrent comes to the surface near the end. As Uma Thurman walks to meet her fate, scored to the mournful tune of “About Her,” a deep sadness comes over the film. In most any other action epic, the story climaxing with a conversation instead of a sword fight would be disappointing. Because the audience is so invested in the characters, and because Tarantino’s dialogue has such a power to it, the viewer doesn’t feel cheated at all. “Kill Bill’s” emotional conclusion proves powerful and deeply satisfying. 

Given the more introspective tone, “Vol. 2” provides fewer opportunities for the director to indulge in stylish visuals. Save for a few. How about the tracking shot on Uma’s feet as she kicks Elle through the door way? It’s hilarious and imaginative, enough so that you can overlook Quentin’s creepy foot fetish. The director perfectly captures the sun-washed look of spaghetti westerns throughout when he isn’t capturing the washed-out color of Hong Kong kung-fu flicks. Aside from a few tracking shots and creative angles, the film’s visual presentation is more relaxed.

Taken as a whole, “Kill Bill” is an impressive accomplishment. The director has perfectly captured what he loves about drive-in cinema and combined them into one massive film experience. This is the kind of movie where kung-fu action scenes are set to music from a blaxploitation flick. It simultaneously invokes westerns, Asian action, Italian horror, Sam Peckinpah, and French New Wave. At the same time, it remains a weirdly personal film, invoking themes that are important to the director. Tarantino also manages to get career-best performances from Uma Thurman, David Carradine, and Daryl Hannah. Even if the second half is less seamlessly paced, it winds up being an intoxicating, massively engaging film experience.

Enough so that I’m sort of glad Tarantino doesn’t plan on making that third volume anymore. The Bride and B.B. have earned their peace. But you know what I do want to see? A prequel, those most maligned of cinematic installments. Where does Bill get all these girls? How did he come to know the Bride? Why was Beatrix such an adapted killer even before Pai Mei’s training? Am I the only one who would love to see the DiVAS working together, doing their thing, killing people? That would be awesome, right? A good sign of quality is when the audience doesn’t want to leave the movie’s world. Other people can stay in Hogwarts or MiddleEarth. I want to exist in the grindhouse afterglow, where beautiful women chop dudes apart with Hattori Hanzo swords, the sun always beats down on the desert like in a Sergio Leone flick and Isaac Hayes or Goblin are always playing on the jukebox. [Grade: A]

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