I’m a killer. A murdering bastard, you know that. And there are consequences to breaking the heart of a murdering bastard.
Fans of Quentin Tarantino were rather surprised, even a little put off, by the director’s decision to split Kill Bill into two movies. A financial decision, they declared it. A way to drum up more cash at the box office. Yet another of the eccentric director’s excesses.
It’s only when you’re able to see the two films side by side that you see the beauty of decision. They’re two halves of the same story, to be sure, one posing the questions, the other the answers; one Tarantino at his most deliciously ebullient, the other at his most methodically restrained. Fact is, they are indeed two completely different films, joined by a blood-spattered bride and her quest for revenge.
When we left off, The Bride (Uma Thurman) was winging her way back from Tokyo, with O-Ren Ishii and her henchman fallen at her Hattori Hanzo sword. We start with a flash back to the very beginning: the grisly wedding chapel massacre that started the tale. We meet Bill for the first time, a complex character of unrequited love, soulful philosophy, and pure evil. As The Bride deals with Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen) and her Deadly Viper Assassination Squad nemesis, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Bill will stand like a specter before The Bride faces the man who tried to kill her…and who has raised her daughter, who she believed to be dead.
I went to great pains in my review of Kill Bill: Volume 1 to point out how over the top and excessive Quentin Tarantino went with the material. He gleefully mimicked the chop-socky films of the Shaw Brothers and others of the ’70s Hong Kong scene. He twisted the linearity of the film with more assertiveness than in previous films, almost to call attention to it, but you later realize he did it so he could build the details of the story in precisely the manner he wanted you to receive them. It’s the most self-assuredly stylistic film from the most self-assured director around.
Kill Bill: Volume 2, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be as hyperactive. It’s almost like a step back for Tarantino to the tense, yet patient, build-up of aggression you saw in Pulp Fiction. As the film begins, compare it to the “Gold Watch” section of Tarantino’s masterpiece. It starts slowly, with the humorous history of the watch. You’re dumped into the boxing match wherein Butch kills the other boxer, which you don’t experience firsthand, only through a radio broadcast. Talking with the cab driver leads to more talking with his girlfriend, only hinting at the danger in the background. Butch violently explodes when he discovers his watch is missing, and proceeds slowly and deliberately into the lion’s den to retrieve it. His confrontation there with a gangster is brief and bloody, but when he runs into (literally) the crime boss he double-crossed, all hell breaks loose.
The opening half-hour or so of Vol. 2 proceeds similarly. We get a flashback to the opening of the first film, a long telling of what led to that event, then Bill recapping the events of the first film for Budd. These elements would be expected of any filmmaker telling a similar story in two parts. What really gets me is the time that Tarantino seemingly wastes on Budd. He’s on the hit list, so he must be a bad mofo, right? So why does he take so much shit from the people at the strip club where he now works? Because Budd, like Tarantino, is patient. I’m sure someday he’d have gutted his boss like a fresh trout, but today, he has patience. The scenes give us, the audience, a misleading impression of the character — we think he’ll just be a bourbon-soaked pushover for The Bride. But then…bam!…he puts the shotgun full of rock salt right into her, and the balance of power shifts. It’s still slow and deliberate, but that gives rise to one of the most powerful and harrowing death scenes imaginable, as The Bride is bound and left for dead in a pine box six feet under.
Tarantino has the patience (or audacity!) to leave The Bride in that hole, with us wondering how the hell she’ll get out…to show us how the hell she’ll get out. Not to mention why she’s the formidable warrior we’ve already come to know. We flash back to her training with the ancient, powerful Pai Mei. This sequence is where Tarantino gets his style-stealing freak on, borrowing the whip-pans and smash-zooms popular in martial arts films of the ’70s. If you can’t build tension in a fight, build tension by STICKING THE CAMERA RIGHT IN SOMEONE’S FACE! Ahem. The scenes with Pai Mei are among my favorite in either of these films. There’s such great comedy there, like Pai Mei telling The Bride she “brays like an ass” after hearing her say just one word, or how his beard becomes nearly another character in the drama between them. We never see her master the three-inch punch, but we know she must as we fade back to her in the cold, cold ground.
But escape she does. The scenes between Elle and Budd, and the epic trailer-bound duel between The Bride and Elle, bring much-needed action and tension to the film. While overall I think I prefer Volume 2 to Volume 1, it is light on the fighting that make Volume 1 so much fun, yet the Elle/Bride conflagration more than makes up for it. It’s knock-down, drag-out brutal between two equally matched women armed with equally vicious swords. The fight’s startling conclusion is the perfect, gratuitously gory capper on all the deaths that lead The Bride to Bill.
Bill. In Volume 1, he was an enigma, the driving force behind all these skilled killers, always off camera like the Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. Here, he’s still an enigma, though now one with a face. He appears up-front in the flashback to the wedding chapel massacre, and when recapping for Budd the carnage created by The Bride. Then, he fades into the background, mostly, except when taking Beatrix to train with Pai Mei — which one could argue doesn’t count, since it’s a flashback. When we finally meet up with him in “the present” — if any point in any Tarantino film can be called “the present,” considering his penchant for chronological mayhem — the self-proclaimed “murdering bastard” is revealed in all his demonic glory. He doesn’t seem evil at first glance; he plays with his daughter, makes her sandwiches, and speaks in soft, friendly tones. But that’s the hallmark of true evil — the sort that seduces you with its innocuousness and destroys you when you least expect.
If there’s one remarkable, surprising thing about Kill Bill, it’s David Carradine. Few people (no, I’m not talking about you, you film geek; I’m talking about real people) know him outside his role of Caine on Kung Fu, or maybe for his infomercials that single-handedly created the tai chi fad. Devotees of cheese might remember he was in Circle of Iron, or Q: The Winged Serpent, or the ultimate in pasteurized processed dairy products, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000. He shows up on screen from time to time, mostly the small screen, mostly in stuff on Showtime. Carradine landed the role after Warren Beatty turned it down — thank the cinematic gods. Like Lawrence Tierney in Reservoir Dogs, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, it’s Tarantino paying homage to a cool actor from the films that formed his cinematic knowledge by placing them in pivotal roles in his own films. No one else could bring the presence of spirit, the lack of overt menace that masks the true malevolence of this killer. Next to Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, it’s the best performance by an actor in a Tarantino film.
Before contemplating your purchase decision, keep in mind that Tarantino has alluded to a super-special edition of both films down the road. If, like me, you’re mad about the movie, then by all means pick up the current edition. If you’re on the fence, give it a rental and keep the Visa in your wallet. With that out of the way, let’s discuss the disc itself.
Kill Bill: Volume 2 is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Like Kill Bill: Volume 1, it’s a good, but not spectacular transfer. The intentionally grainy look of certain sequences (like the flashbacks to Pai Mei’s training sessions) is preserved perfectly, while the “normal” sections of the film look natural with no source defects or digital blemishes. I noted much less edge enhancement than on the first volume.
Again, audio is in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes, with Dolby Digital 5.1 French for the Quebecers. Again, DTS is the preferred mix (when isn’t it?). While there are no showy surround sequences, the mix is still immersive, and there’s quite the feeling of verisimilitude when you hear the sounds of being buried alive coming from all around you.
Extras consist of a 26-minute “making-of” featurette, a deleted scene, and a live performance of “Malaguena” by Robert Rodriguez’s band at the Kill Bill: Vol. 2 premiere. Featurette: typical talking heads and on-set footage. What isn’t typical is the deleted scene — not many of these exist for Tarantino’s films. This one is part of the flashback that shows Bill taking The Bride to be trained by Pai Mei. The duo run into a band of assassins led by Michael Jai White (Spawn). Bill handily dispatches the lot of them. It’s a cool scene, at least as part of the special features; it would’ve added nothing within the context of the film, except to give us more grindhousesque gore and our only glimpse of Bill in action (which we don’t need, since we get that he’s a badass without him lifting his sword). The live performance is nice, but a disposable extra.
Okay, don’t get me wrong. I love both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, but there’s one thing that bugs me, at least just a little…
After three hours of build-up to the confrontation between Bill and The Bride, it’s over in only thirty seconds?
Months before either volume hit theaters, there was an early draft of the screenplay floating around online. I read it, naturally — I’m a spoiler junkie. In that draft, the climax is Bill and The Bride dueling on the beach at sunrise, just like Bill suggests in the finished film. That’s a deeply satisfying ending for us lovers of on-screen violence. The thirty-second fight — sitting down, no less! — we get here just doesn’t have the same visceral impact.
I hate double-dipping, but this is one instance where you’ve just gotta spring for this edition, then eBay it when you get the second edition. Kill Bill: Volume 2 is one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films: visually appealing, emotionally compelling, and just freakin’ cool.