159 – Kill Bill Vol. 2

My first thought is that this isn’t nearly as good as the first one. But that’s a little unfair, since the first one was (for me) an amazing film.

Making a two-volume movie is a huge gamble. If the first one tanks, then no one’s going to want to see the second one, which has likely already been filmed. If the first one is a rousing success, though, then it becomes the standard by which the second one is judged. For the filmmaker, this can be a losing proposition.

The movie follows the revenge game played by The Bride (Uma Thurman), on her quest to find the man who ordered her wedding party slaughtered. Oh, and the man whose baby she was carrying when he put a bullet in her brain. Only the bullet didn’t kill The Bride – it merely put her in a long coma. And when she woke up – look out!

In the first film, The Bride tracked down two of her former compadres in killing as part of an elite hit squad. Now she has three names left on her list: Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and her ex-boss and ex-lover, Bill (David Carradine).

Quentin Tarantino takes an approach similar to the one he used to such great success in Pulp Fiction and that he reused in the first Kill Bill movie – scenes (chapters, in this case) that are shown to the audience out of order. Luckily, the scenes aren’t so jumbled that the audience can’t follow what’s going on. In fact, the order rearranging is fairly tame by Tarantino standards.

Tarantino does a great job in incorporating various movie genres into his film; it’s part samurai thriller, part kung fu actioner, part cheesy, kitschy, zap-powie seventies schlock. He’s always been proficient in this area; Pulp Fiction’s characters at times seemed to be stuck in the seventies, but at the same time they didn’t appear to be fish out of water. That’s the genius of Tarantino.

Where this film diverges from the first, however, is in its pacing. Volume 1 was chock full of fast-paced action scenes – The Bride taking on the Crazy 88 springs to mind – but while there are a few interesting, riveting scenes in Vol. 2, there aren’t nearly enough of them. And because there are insufficient action scenes, there are plenty of times when the movie seems to flag a little. A lull in a Tarantino movie can be richly cultivated (remember the “awkward silences” scene with Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction), but if there’s nothing going on either above or below the surface, then the audience will get a little bored. Especially if they’ve been expecting wall-to-wall gore.

The performances are rather remarkable, however. Thurman continues to amaze as The Bride (a character she and Tarantino came up with together). Quick – how many action movies can you name that had a strong female lead? Ok, now how many of those were any good? Thurman would have to be incredible in order to carry this film, and she doesn’t disappoint in the least. Whereas she was a pleasant surprise in Vol. 1, we now expect her to do the same in Vol. 2, and she’s up to the task.

Equally up to the task is 67-year-old David Carradine. Yep, 67. I didn’t realize he was such an old goat! And one look at him… well, let’s just say Mr. Carradine has lived a hard life. Leathery and craggy, he’s a Mount Rushmore of actors – and I don’t mean in terms of professional stature. Carradine’s quickly approaching his dad’s prolific career (John Carradine appeared in around 500 movies). But he’s found the role of a lifetime as Bill, and he commands every scene he’s in. That velvety-smooth, world-weary voice disguises a malevolent scheming that lets you know he will persevere in the end. But does he? Doesn’t the title belie that answer?

Michael Madsen is just okay in his role as Bill’s brother Budd, but that’s not an insult. He’s just Michael Madsen, turning in a performance one expects from Michael Madsen (who could forget him as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs?).

Another of Tarantino’s more admirable traits is that he’s able to get compelling performances of a lifetime from his actors. Take Daryl Hannah. Could anyone really have predicted she would even be IN this movie? The mermaid from Splash? But as Elle Driver, Hannah’s cold, sexy…. and blind in one eye. (How she lost that one eye is explained, rather vividly.)

Tarantino also loves to bring back moldy-oldie actors from Back in the Day, partly to revive their careers and partly as an homage to those older films he grew up with. This time around, he has Gordon Liu, who plays the mystical Pai Mei, who trained Bill’s elite squad.

We see some amazing scenes of The Bride being trained hard by Pai Mei, scenes that are of course reminiscent of all of the wise-master-training-young-hotshot kung-fu films (such as Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master). We also see Bo Svenson as the reverend who’s about to marry The Bride, and Michael Parks as old Bill friend Esteban Vihaio. Oh, and Sid Haig, whom I last saw in House of 1,000 Corpses, is barkeep at the nudie bar at which Budd’s a bouncer.

Aside from the sometimes-turgid pacing, another problem is the soundtrack. There were several times throughout the movie when the music was substantially louder than the dialogue on the screen! Now, I ask you – does that make any sense? Tarantino’s always been a stickler for having the right song for the right scene, but come on – if I can’t hear his strong dialogue, what’s the point?

I guess this film, in essence, didn’t grab me as the first one did. I didn’t leave the theater satisfied. I didn’t leave with some of my favorite scenes still being played in my mind, over and over again. For me, the movie was flat and fell below expectations. It’s still a well-done movie, but it’s not up to Vol. 1’s excellence.

Kill Bill Vol. 2: ***

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