Published in the Austin American-Statesman
Last Fall, Quentin Tarantino calmed anxious fans by promising that, while the first half of "Kill Bill" contained hardly a whiff of his famously clever dialogue, the conclusion would be full of it.
He was at least half true to his word. "Vol. 2" does indeed place small oceans of words between The Bride and her "bloody satisfaction." But few of Tarantino's lines zing the way they did in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." The fault is not only in the words themselves, but in the stars.
Some actors -- Samuel Jackson, for instance -- were made to read Tarantino's dialogue. Others were not: Despite his obvious appropriateness for this East-meets-West saga, "Kung Fu" star David Carradine is a poor match for the speeches he's given; he turns them into narrative roadblocks full of unnecessary pauses and uncomfortable emphases.
Not that these are the finest examples of Tarantinese ever committed to paper. There's a brilliant QT idea at the heart of one of Bill's main speeches (it involves a cold reinterpretation of the Superman mythology), but the thought is poorly fleshed out and couched in dull verbiage. Many of the film's other monologues are similarly off, and not in ways (like Thurman's stiffly martial dialogue in "Vol. 1") that can be described as homage to the genres inspiring "Kill Bill."
Joyless dialogue is one reason "Vol. 2" feels fairly anticlimactic after the first half's thrill ride. Another reason is that there simply was nothing the filmmaker could do to top the violent spectacle of the first installment's "House of Blue Leaves" sequence. Instead, there's almost no fight at all once the Bride meets Bill; the conflict is more emotional than violent.
Still, there's a lot to like about the film, including a showcase fight scene that takes place not in a cavernous Japanese restaurant but in a cramped trailer-home whose dimensions make swordfighting a challenging proposition. A perfect balance of comedy and bloodlust, the scene indulges a cartoonishly tense Sergio Leone stare-down even as you're wondering how the two combatants are going to find the elbow room to hack each other up. This isn't the first bit of claustrophobia in the picture -- an enjoyably itchy buried-alive sequence precedes it -- but it is the high point of the film, action-wise.
Speaking of claustrophobia: At one point during the Bride's encounter with the gone-to-seed Budd (who, as played by an overweight, greasy Michael Madsen, is almost a sympathetic character), the screen's borders collapse to the near-square proportions of a TV screen. Fans of Japanese actress Meiko Kaji (who sings "Flower of Carnage" on the "Kill Bill" soundtrack) may remember that her 1970 film "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter" pulled a similar trick; aside from homage, there's no clear reason for the switch. Nor is there a compelling reason that the Bride's real name should be bleeped out until it is offhandedly revealed midway through this movie.
Tarantino's stylistic eccentricities work to better effect in a flashback sequence in which the Bride is trained by the abusive kung-fu master Pai Mei (played by Gordon Liu, one of two actors to play dual roles in "Kill Bill"). Here, intentionally clumsy rear-projection, wacky zoom-pan camera moves, and garish silhouette shots combine to evoke a legacy of chopsocky classics seen on badly worn film prints.
The Pai Mei chapter is also one spot where the film's music works best. This is the first Quentin Tarantino movie in which pop music is used less than brilliantly: Tunes like Johnny Cash's "A Satisfied Mind" and the Zombies' "She's Not There" (reworked soporifically by Malcolm McLaren) are not only clumsy commentaries on the scenes they accompany, they also fail to provide the musical "aha" moment so common in the director's filmography. The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA is underused here as well, after contributing so much to the first film's atmosphere.
"Vol. 2" ends with an overextended credits sequence in which many actors (from both chapters) get their names in lights twice, and even the gaffer gets a full-screen acknowledgement. Viewers inclined to see "Kill Bill" as bloated and self-indulgent will find more evidence here, while others may wax nostalgic about the simple elegance of "Vol. 1"'s opening titles. Maybe this installment's long goodbye will make more sense as part of some future Director's Cut, in which the Bride meets all her enemies in one four-hour stretch -- but here it's just one more small, questionable decision keeping "Vol. 2" from its better half's greatness.