If Kill Bill Vol. 1 was bloody exhilarating, Vol. 2 is bloody great. And, as a bonus, not nearly so bloody.
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who initially envisioned Kill Bill as a single four-hour movie, now has crafted a second volume that stands firmly on its own (not to take anything away from Vol. 1, which was wonderful in its own right). Kill Bill Vol. 2 takes Uma Thurman's Bride character, essentially a cipher in the first film, adds all sorts of layers and transforms her from a killing machine to a woman of remarkable depth and complexity.
Even better, the film finally brings Bill himself into the picture. In Vol. 1, he was merely a voice; here, he's David Carradine in a performance as slinky, compelling, menacing and endlessly watchable as anything likely to appear on movie screens this year.
Fans of the first film will remember that it ended with the revelation that the Bride's daughter (whose father is Bill), is still alive. Vol. 1 allowed the Bride to demonstrate her prowess as a master swordswoman and amoral assassin, especially in her blood-soaked encounter with Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii. (And man, did those two have at one another.) Their battle showcased Tarantino's beloved kung-fu films at their adrenalized best, crammed with so much action that there was barely time for character and plot development.
Any who considered that a flaw should find no such fault with Vol. 2, as the Bride's newly realized motherhood gives her motivation and leavens her character. No longer is she merely seeking revenge for the massacre that Bill ordered at her wedding rehearsal; now she's out to save a young girl's soul, if not her life (a similar transformation occurred to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character between Alien and Aliens).
The new film fills in a lot of the Bride's backstory, as well. Instead of simply seeing a church floor strewn with bloodied bodies, we see the wedding rehearsal, meet her intended (an innocuous good old boy played by Chris Nelson) and watch Bill's arrival on the scene, as he convinces a not-suspicious-enough Bride that he doesn't mind having been jilted. The scene ends with Bill agreeing to help the ceremony along while outside his gang of assassins begins its silent approach.
We see the Bride trained by master Pai Mei (played with glee by Gordon Liu, a mainstay of the kung-fu films Tarantino devoured as a youngster and to which he continues to pay homage). Pai, a misogynistic, sadistic taskmaster who delights in viciously putting down his disciples, is a martial arts master. Bill was an early disciple, now Thurman's Bride (aka Black Mamba) despairs of ever matching his accomplishments. But she learns - including some skills that come in handy when she's buried alive by Michael Madsen's Budd (in a scene horror-movie filmmakers will be trying to ape for years).
We even see the Bride discover she's pregnant in a scene of perfectly pitched black comedy - and perhaps the first time a home pregnancy test has been used as a defensive weapon.
But as good as Thurman is, she's upstaged by Carradine, whose deeply lined face speaks volumes even when he's silent. His Bill is a charming snake, seductive but ready to strike, his voice as much an invitation as a warning.
Over all this rules Tarantino, generating more excitement in a single frame than many directors muster in a lifetime. His passion for this stuff has been well documented; more impressive is his continuing ability to make us share that passion. Aiding him in no small measure is cinematographer Robert Richardson, who shoots in myriad styles, depending on the subject matter and characters at hand. His ability to mimic the kung-fu films of the '70s and '80s, including the harsh over-lighting and the rapid, often dizzying zooms, exhilarates and amuses.
Kill Bill Vol. 2, in the grand tradition of the best in pop-culture entertainment, is alternately amusing and horrifying, awe-inspiring and chuckle-inducing. It isn't subtle, but in its hamfistedness lies its great glory. Rarely has cinematic cheesiness been so rousing.
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Rated R (violence, language and brief drug use)
Released by Miramax
Time 136 minutes
Sun Score ****