Monday, September 13, 2004

Review: "Kill Bill Volume 2"

See my review of "Kill Bill Volume 1" here.

Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors able to bring out the best in David Carradine. Carradine has never struck me as a great actor, or even as a particularly good actor. He's eccentric at best, and as I've previously contended, he's a poseur in the world of martial arts. But Carradine makes every on-screen moment count in "Kill Bill Volume 2," and Tarantino gets him to hit all the right notes.

As plenty of reviewers have remarked, KBV2 is a completely different movie in style and tone from KBV1. The first movie was all about the action; the second is more meditative and takes time to explore its characters. Revenge is, obviously, still the driving force behind this movie as it was in the first, and KBV2 shows us that Hattori Hanzo's warning was on the money: revenge is like a forest, and you can get lost in it.

This isn't obvious until Bill and the Bride (who we now know is Beatrix Kiddo) meet face to face near the end of the film. They're in love with each other, but their natures contain more than just love: as Bill points out about Beatrix, she's a natural born killer. Bill is, too. This complicates things.

When Bill wants a confession out of Beatrix, he shoots her in the knee with a powerful truth serum (what is it with Uma and needle scenes in Tarantino films?). While he waits for the serum to take effect, Bill discourses on what makes Superman different from other superheroes: he didn't become Superman; he was born Superman. The same, Bill says, is true of Beatrix: she's all killer, and her abortive wedding would have led to a sham life. We understand at this point that Bill is warning her: he knows he's going to die, but if Beatrix thinks that motherhood will cleanse her of her nature, she's wrong. Bill drives this point home by quizzing Beatrix on whether she got satisfaction from killing the other members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. "Yes," she moans. Case closed.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Carradine holds his own opposite Uma Thurman. I also have to give mad props to Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Madsen plays Budd, Bill's estranged brother. Budd's an ex-assassin and former swordsman, but now he's a shambling bouncer in a topless bar, waiting to die. He manages to overpower a rampaging Beatrix with a well-placed shotgun blast, and gets one of the best lines in the movie when he describes Beatrix's predicament as "a tittyful of rock salt" or something similar.

Daryl Hannah, just as I hoped, plays her psycho-bitch role to perfection as Elle Driver, Bill's current-- and one-eyed-- lover. She loses her fight against Beatrix when her remaining eye is plucked out. I couldn't help thinking that the ensuing thrashing-and-screaming scene was a direct reference to Daryl Hannah's role as the deadly replicant Pris in "Blade Runner."

Props as well to Perla Haney-Jardine, the wee lass who plays B.B., Beatrix's (and Bill's!) daughter; and to Gordon Liu as Master Pai Mei, a White Lotus priest who, for some unexplained reason, has been training Bill's assassination squad.

In a flashback sequence, we learn that Pai Mei suffered his death at the hands of a vengeful Elle Driver, who "poisoned his fish heads." Elle's right eye was plucked out by Pai Mei when she called him a foolish old man. A co-worker and I both agreed that Pai Mei would have had to be pretty stupid not to see Elle's revenge coming. And since, early on in KBV2, Bill tells Beatrix a story about Pai Mei that dates back to the year 1003 (thereby making us wonder whether this is the selfsame Pai Mei), I choose to believe that Pai Mei only faked his death for Elle's benefit. You can't kill a near-invincible White Lotus priest with poisoned fish heads, dammit!

Tarantino's pastiche of cinematographic styles and filmic genres is realized at a more leisurely pace in KBV2. The bulk of the film takes place in the American West, with training flashbacks to what I suppose is China. The kung fu fight choreography is deliberately goofy, occasionally mimicking the fakey "swinging hands" style of bad kung fu flicks from the early 1970s. Carradine's own martial moves at the end of the film get a lot of help from swift editing. As I said, he's a martial actor, not a martial artist.

Scattered thoughts: A lot of time was devoted to Beatrix's live burial after she gets incapacitated by Budd. Plenty of dark screen and heavy breathing. It worked. The flashlight was a nice touch. I noticed that, overall, Tarantino had better control of some of his worse impulses as a director. For example, he's choosier about when to do long, continuous shots (as opposed to his awful, obnoxious camera work in "Jackie Brown"). I was also glad to see a Samuel Jackson cameo at the beginning of the movie.

In all, KBV2 isn't nearly as intense as KBV1, but it's got loads of characterization to make up for lack of action. The dialogue remains as quirky and vulgar as ever. Michael Madsen, perhaps because he's playing Bill's brother, does a wonderful Carradine impression, adopting Carradine's oddly cadenced drawl.

One last remark, this time regarding Carradine and that goddamn flute. I don't know the trivia behind the film, but I'd love to find out whether Carradine insisted on bringing the flute along for the movie, or whether Tarantino specifically wanted the flute in Carradine's scenes as a reminder of Carradine's cult status as star of the "Kung Fu" series. My reading of the flute's presence depends on who wanted it on screen. That, to me, is the biggest puzzle in KBV2.

KBV2 is downright mellow for a Tarantino film, but in the end, it's the perfect counterpoint to KBV1. I think Tarantino made the right decision to chop the movie in half as he did. If you haven't seen KBV2 yet, give it a rent and enjoy.


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