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Kill Bill: Volume Two

Buena Vista/Miramax Home Video

Starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen
Daryl Hannah, and Gordon Liu

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

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Review by Damon Houx                    

When we last left The Bride (Uma Thurman), she had just sliced her way through two members of her kill list, Go-Go Yubari, Johnny Mo, and the fifty-seven members of the Crazy 88 (as Bill tells us in this volume, "They just called themselves 'The Crazy 88'" because, as he guesses, "they thought it sounded cool.") And after the uproarious, immoral, and gonzo first section, the series (which was split into two because of its unwieldy running time) mutates into something else. Something extraordinary.

Both films are divided into five chapters, with the last chapters the longest, and the end of the first film is meant to be a cliffhanger — the last words spoken are "Is she (The Bride) aware her daughter is still alive?" This ending sets up the dramatic tonal shift of the second half. Implicit in it is that — in the hoariest of action clichés — with Volume 2, this time it's personal. And it is; the first film had The Bride hacking through numerous people, but none whom she was that close to or cared about. Here the body count is reduced to focus on the people that The Bride must kill to enact her bloody revenge (there are only three on-screen deaths, and the reviewer would like to note that those who've seen the film and might doubt him should think of fish heads). And for these three names left on the kill list, it's a different but no less engaging ride.

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After the violent introduction that accompanies both films, and some brief remarks from The Bride, the story kicks off with a flashback to the "Massacre at Two Pines," where Bill (David Carradine) set the "whole gory story" in motion. Immediately, the change of tone is apparent, as — after an amusing introduction of how the wedding would go (with Bo Svenson as the priest and a cameo from one of QT's regulars) — Bill gets his first on-screen moments. Immediately, Bill and The Bride's relationship is deepened; though we know both what is about to happen and that it's Bill's baby, both characters have a certain longing and appreciation for each other. Sweeping out of the church to reveal the assassins on the prowl, the unavoidable tragedy gains a new sense of melancholy, something that has been evident in the first half, but is all the more present here.

Then we meet Budd (Michael Madsen), who refuses brother Bill's help, insisting on dealing with The Bride himself. Though introduced in Vol. 1 as perhaps accepting of The Bride's revenge, he's revealed to be something of a shitkicker who sold his Hattori Hanzo sword for some dough. Working at a titty bar as the bouncer, we see that his life has become filled with desperation as he takes his personal licks from his coked-out boss (Larry Bishop, owning his scant screen-time). But Budd is tougher than he looks and tricks The Bride, allowing him to have the chance to bury her alive.

The story then flashes to The Bride's training with kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu, returning from Vol. 1, albeit as a totally different character). Pai Mei is a bastard, but he trains her in the ways she will use to escape, while also allowing Tarantino to pay his Shaw Brothers homage by replicating their techniques (odd zooms, beard stroking), their Fu styles ("Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique"), and their cadence ("You are as helpless as a worm fighting an eagle.") It's worth noting that Pai Mei is based on a Shaw Brothers character of the same name who'd — as Tarantino notes in the supplements — often fight against Shaw regular Liu. Budd has promised The Bride's new sword to Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and they exchange unpleasantries until Elle gets what she wants. But she too must have her showdown against The Bride (whose name is revealed in such a way that it seems to have been kept secret in the first volume to make a joke of Bill's opening remarks to her). This all leads into the final chapter, where The Bride must face down Bill. But — as the audience knows — he has their daughter B.B. (button cute Perla Haney-Jardine), and both parties have some unanswered questions before their final mano a mano can take place.

*          *          *

It would be easy to repeat what has been said about the first film and its high points: the sound design, Robert Richardson's excellent cinematography, Tarantino's (and original music providers The RZA's and Robert Rodriguez's) great ear for music, Yuen Wo Ping's brutal and brilliant fight choreography, are still great here. But what makes this the better film of the two is its depth. One of the things that defines great art is that it comes alive because of the minutia. Artists who know their subjects create believable worlds out of them — the best stories not only ask us to fill in the blanks, but make those blanks seem natural to fill. And where Vol. 1 was all femme-centric hyperkinetic and hyperstylized violence, here we are faced with four characters who are deadly, but also well defined.

Though there is no denying the comeback power of David Carradine's performance, Michael Madsen delivers the film's best male turn. From the end of the first volume he is introduced being a bit more melancholy, but his performance and character have many interesting — and sometimes contradictory — layers. Budd tells Bill that he sold his Hanzo sword in El Paso for $250, but it is later revealed that he kept it. What we know from the first chapter (and first film) was that The Bride was assaulted in El Paso, making his sword sale metaphorical — he knows he crossed a line, and his life-change reflects this shame. How else can one interpret Budd's new life? At one time Budd was one of the toughest men alive (one assumes from his role in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad), and yet he takes all the crap dished out at him by his boss — why else take it except some form of penance? With his razor-blade necklace and chew-spitting ways, he's both dumber and smarter than he looks, and one's aware of these complicated emotions inside him.

And never is this clearer than — in one of the great moments of the series — the odd look he gives The Bride when he's about to bury her. "This is for my brother" he says, yet he obviously has divorced himself from that side of his life. In another movie his actions might seem like bad writing, but here the character is obviously divided on his involvement in the whole process (as he drawls, "that woman deserves her revenge… and … we deserve to die… but then again, so does she… so, I guess… we'll… just see, won't we?") When Budd meets his fate, one almost feels a bit sorry for him. Almost.

And though we've learned of the wrath of Elle Driver in the first half, here we get to know her real character. Not only is she a real bitch, but her relationship to Bill (especially in light of Bill and The Bride's relationship) becomes all too clear: Elle has always been second best. Eager to please Bill, she's never been fond of The Bride because of her favored status, and has relished the last few years as the new number one. She's also obviously petulant, and acts like The Bride's lesser sibling. Her fate is far more relishable. And it is in these sections that Tarantino gets to play more homages than he does in the film's second Bill-centric half, as the Leone westerns (heightened by the rampant use of Ennio Morricone's music) and the Giallo in general (the burial, and a mutilation)

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Which brings us and The Bride to Bill, and David Carradine. Made a mysterious and off-screen presence in the first film, he is introduced minutes into the second half, and becomes a dominating presence throughout. It's interesting to note that Warren Beatty was in talks to play the role, since the Bill character — nicknamed "The Snake Charmer" — is surrounded by a bevy of women (his stable of killers is all women, excepting his brother) who do his pleasure; had Beatty played him, the film might have seemed more a commentary on Beatty and the numerous women he's romanced in his life. With Carradine, the warmth and affection that Bill has for The Bride shines through more; Beatty might have been more politically interesting, but Carradine is at a better service to the character and becomes another one of Tarantino's great rediscovered actors; Carradine positively shines here.

The most interesting reveal about Bill is that he truly, madly, and deeply loves The Bride. Like her, he may be a "natural born killer," but he is shown to be affectionate and caring with their daughter, and the greatest reveal in this volume is how much the massacre in Two Pines was done (as Bill states at the beginning of both films) as an act of masochism. The viewer also is struck that Bill is not a bad father. Perhaps he too felt the redemptive effects of parenthood. One knows that the squad dissolved after the massacre — a signal that that event changed everyone's life involved — while Bill muses to his daughter that "I knew what would happen to mommy if I shot her, what I didn't know was when I shot mommy what would happen to me." The last act, the near-hour-long final chapter, reveals that Bill was raised fatherless and (undoubtedly) has abandonment issues; though his violence was not reasonable, it was certainly justifiable to him.

And as the reason for his revenge on her is revealed so are her reasons for facing his wrath. What becomes apparent in this section is that the whole four-hour-plus journey is about two people who love each other, but have done such things to hurt the other, and that hurt so deep, that they have no choice but to try and kill each other. It's an oddly poetic journey, metaphorical of many passionate but ultimately destructive relationships, though one that flaunts its amoral nature (all the main players, outside of B.B., are murderers.) In the end, the film becomes a perverted love story; a cumulative moment in Tarantino's oeuvre, since he has dealt with murderous lovers in two screenplays (that, coincidentally again, also started out as one film) in True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Here though, these two predators can no longer stay together once a child enters their lives.

Introducing a child into this world of violence is fitting, though transgressive to many viewers. The first volume's most awkward moment has The Bride facing the daughter of someone she murdered, and it's a moment that struck many critics as the film's greatest fault; ironically the moment that the "fun" violence becomes all too real (which, again, points out that many critics don't think through their reactions; aren't they saying that Tarantino's simply made the violence affecting?) But Tarantino is conscious of the effect both real and fake violence has, and the scars it leaves. Like Sam Fuller in Naked Kiss, Tarantino is optimistic that bad people can change, and when Bill and The Bride have their epic conversation before their showdown, in which Bill uses a truth serum to make sure his lover will be honest, it's revealed The Bride's escape from her life as a high-paid contract killer was done to preserve the integrity of her child's life and innocence. The sticking point for many is that B.B. enjoys watching Shogun Assassin, but later on B.B. is shown watching a cartoon that is equally violent; this may be the first political message Tarantino has ever crafted, in that he seems to be commenting on how others can unfairly judge what's acceptable for children without actually watching what's considered "good" children's entertainment. Ultimately there is a big difference between violence that's fake and violence that's real.

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As entertaining as the series is, it wouldn't work if it weren't for Uma Thurman. What becomes most apparent about her in this Volume is how everyone she meets falls in love with her (director included). In the Pai Mei segments, one can sense that even this old man who hates American women develops an affection for her during their first fight. She's a charmer. Even Bill's surrogate father Esteban (Michael Parks, who like Liu returns in a different role) is immediately won over her by her, while (spoiler though this may be) in their last moments together Bill expresses that she is a great person, one of the best people in his life. Which he says after she's effectively killed him.

This love-fest may be why rumors have swirled about Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman's relationship with each other. These pair of movies, as trying as they might have been on everyone involved to make, are essentially a love-letter (perhaps a platonic love, perhaps unrequited or requited, it's not really fair to say) to the talents and charm of Ms. Thurman. These films, like the men in The Bride's life, swoon over her. As an audience member, it's hard not too as well. When the story wraps with a surprisingly upbeat conclusion, it's impossible to not wish The Bride the best of luck.

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For those looking to watch the entirety of Kill Bill, the division is effective. The first half offers aesthetic pleasure, while Volume 2 is the ethical, character-driven piece. The fun of the first picture is in the gory, pumped-up mayhem, and whatever might have followed would have seemed anti-climatic if seen in total. Some viewers were disappointed by the second installment because it was unable to outdo the "House of Blue Leaves" sequence. That said, how could it? Wouldn't the bride killing a hundred people or more become repetitive? Knowing the story in whole, the conclusion has to be about Bill and The Bride, and there's no way to justify such an overblown battle at that part of the story. Tarantino wanted to include an over the top slaughter to show The Bride's prowess, but telling it later in the tale might make the conclusion anti-climatic, simply because it's hard to separate the pleasure of spectacle from the pleasure of well-rounded characters; there's room for both, but in the division both become better formed. As such, it's hard not to view these films as separate — though continuous — entities. That said there is talk of releasing the whole thing put together in a deluxe-o DVD set, as of this writing rumored but not confirmed. How much is fanboy speculation and how much is reality has yet to be proven, although a cut-together version played at Cannes in 2004, while the online screenplay hinted at sequences that may or may not have been shot (only one deleted scene is included with this DVD release).

With this, we're led to Quentin Tarantino. Though many forecasted doom for this project (and many have been hankering for the boy wonder to fall flat on his face), both films grossed around $70 million domestically (the total budget is reported to be around $70 million, so by splitting the film in half it seems Miramax doubled the gross), while DVD sales on the first title were strong, and (as to be expected) the films were well received in overseas markets. Tarantino is still his own animal, still gets to call his own shots at Miramax, and still is one of the most revered and imitated directors working today. And this reviewer couldn't be happier about that.

But what does this bode for the future of Tarantino? Having taken six years off between Brown and these films, one felt the absence in the interim, and now we're no longer able to expect anything for a while. Who knows how long the next project will take? Or if he'll ever get around to finishing the script for Inglorious Bastards? While Q.T.'s already stated that he wouldn't mind doing a future chapter in the Bill saga by following Nikki, the daughter of slain DiVAS member Vernita Green, he's waiting until the young actress who played gets a bit older. Like, fifteen to twenty years older.

What is apparent though, is that through these two efforts Tarantino made the movie-mad film people have been expecting since Pulp Fiction, the film that incorporated all the genres and filmmakers he loved into a magpie mélange. And yet, shockingly, Kill Bill is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but is also an emotionally effecting genre piece that (especially in this last chapter) nails not just the action but the characters and their burdens, making it a strangely affecting love story about "murdering bastards."

*          *          *

Miramax presents Kill Bill: Volume 2 in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio. And — like the first installment — it's a perfectly acceptable demo disc.

One hopes the gigantor box set does come someday, because there's little of worth here in terms of supplements. There's The Making of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (26:03), which is a fairly good little featurette in comparison to most, but still slight. Chingon Performance from the Kill Bill Vol. 2 Premiere (11:32) features co-composer Roberto Rodriguez performing music from the film, and is exactly that. What will whet many fans' appetites is the Damoe Deleted Scene (3:37), which features Michael Jai White and his gang squaring off against David Carradine because he killed White's master. It's a nice chance to watch the former Kung Fu star kick ass, with White's Australian accent, stilted laughs and "You bastard" dialogue meant to replicate the experience of bad dubbing. And shockingly, no trailers, even though there are a couple new ones that didn't make the first disc.

"You bastards" indeed.

—Damon Houx

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