Monday, April 19, 2004

Kill Bill Vol. 2

By Elise Nakhnikian

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has been playing elaborate riffs on what makes homicidal people tick ever since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s never been better than in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

If the luscious eye candy of Vol. 1 was an exhilarating swoosh down a water park ride, Vol. 2 is a tidal wave that sweeps you up as it gathers momentum. Both halves (it was originally shot as one movie) are gorgeous to look at, often funny, and jam-packed with striking-looking people doing or discussing campily cool things, like “the five-point palm exploding-heart technique,” a fatal martial arts move introduced in Vol. 2. Both have vibrant, visceral soundtracks. But Vol. 1 devoted all that creativity simply to showing a killer at work, leaving audiences wanting a little more substance. Vol. 2 slakes that thirst, letting us see what was behind its heroine’s “roaring rampage of revenge,” as she sardonically describes it. In the process, it casts her — and Vol. 1 — in a whole new light.

Kill Bill is the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), a creation of Tarantino and Thurman, who came up with the idea for the character while working together on Pulp Fiction. In Vol. 1, she’s a female version of the archetypal “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone Westerns, as two-dimensional as the silhouettes Tarantino likes to shoot against brightly colored backgrounds, in a nod to Hong Kong chop-socky movie credit sequences.

In Vol. 2, the silhouette gets fleshed out. We see The Bride as a vulnerable young woman in wide-eyed thrall to Bill (David Carradine). We learn her name (Beatrix Kiddo). We find out what made her reject the life that the pimp-like Bill trained her for, as the most talented and most favored member of Bill’s professional hit squad. And we learn why she’s determined to dispatch the remaining members of the squad, who left her for dead about five years earlier — especially Bill, who also happens to be the father of her child and maybe the love of her life.

Vol. 2 revives one of Tarantino’s signature techniques, using artfully indirect talk as a counterpoint to brutal, bloody action. In one creepily compelling domestic scene, Bill makes sandwiches in his kitchen, telling a story about how his five-year-old daughter learned about death while trimming the crusts with a butcher’s knife.

Like the wink from Beatrix that ends Vol. 2, these quirky conversations remind us that we’re safe inside what the director likes to call “Quentin Tarantino world.” At the same time, because they’re usually so firmly grounded in the mundane details of consumer culture, they blur the line between Tarantino’s world and ours, making his sociopaths and professional killers feel unsettlingly familiar.

Also familiar is the multicultural texture of Tarantino’s world, which looks a lot like America. A hybrid inspired by spaghetti Westerns and Chinese and Japanese martial arts movies, Kill Bill is part of an emerging international cinema that emulates and adapts movie traditions from Asia as well as Europe and the Americas.

Tarantino is at the top of his form here, and Tarantino in top form is one of the best moviemakers working today. From the beautiful, high-energy camera work to the side-winding dialogue to the slyly referential songs to the old-style characters filling out small parts (look for a deliciously oily cameo by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks as a Mexican pimp), he knows just how to construct what he calls “a movie-movie,” layer by juicy layer.

As in Vol. 1, the fights are lovingly choreographed. There’s less fighting and a lot less blood this time around, but when people do battle they clash like bull elephants.

Sound is also chosen for maximum impact, heightening if not creating a scene’s emotional heft. When Beatrix is captured and tortured by Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen), for instance, Tarantino and his sound crew convey her panic by letting the screen go black as they crank up the ragged sound of her breathing, the taunting laughter of her captors, and the sound of their horrible work.

You don’t have to have seen Vol. 1 to enjoy Vol. 2, but it’s worth renting one of these days if you haven’t caught it yet. In the meantime, if you love movies and don’t mind stylized violence, treat yourself to Vol. 2 while it’s still in theaters. Movie-movies this engrossing don’t come along often.

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