Oh, Quentin, you sneaky son-of-a-so-and-so—you pulled a fast one on us. Here we all thought you only chopped Kill Bill as a sop to Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein’s fear of an epic running time. Now it’s clear at last: You were making two different movies all along, and wanted to throw us off the trail.
Sure, back in October, I thought Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was an awesome but fairly hollow spin through all your singularly Tarantinoesque 1970s cinematic obsessions. If there was an emotional kicker, it was lurking somewhere outside the frame, waiting for its resolution. It turns out there was such a kicker—but it probably couldn’t have worked in conjunction with all the swinging swords and blood geysers. So as a follow-up to your celebration of bitchin’ coolness, you gave us a climax that’s an entirely different piece of work. At its core, it’s a gut-slammer of a love story.
Not that there isn’t still some bitchin’ business left to finish from Vol. 1. The vengeance-seeking Bride (Uma Thurman) only crossed two names off her Death List Five during the first go-round, leaving three of her former hired-killer partners who turned her wedding party into tartare and left her in a four-year coma. There’s Budd (Michael Madsen), retired to a sadsack life in the California desert as a strip club bouncer. There’s Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), the one-eyed mercenary who nearly offed the Bride in the first film. And, of course, there’s the man himself—Bill (David Carradine), the Bride’s ex-boss and ex-lover, whom she plans to turn into an ex-breathing human. She’s got a Hattori Hanzo blade, dangerous moves and a score to settle.
So you’ve still got some slick stuff to deliver. Cinematographer Robert Richardson goes grainy and washed-out for a flashback to the Bride’s martial arts training with aging master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), complete with gratuitous zoom close-ups and satisfied flips of Pai Mei’s wispy beard. The Bride and Elle reduce a mobile home to splinters during their brutal showdown. You’ve got—as Joe Bob Briggs might say—your venomous snake bite on the face-fu, yanked-out eyeball-fu, buried alive in the pitch dark-fu. Soooooo cool. Soooooo Quentin.
But you started dropping hints from the opening frames of Vol. 2 that this was going to be something different. Gone were the “Shaw Scope” and “Our Feature Presentation” leaders that kicked off Vol. 1’s nostalgia trip. The first key scene—a flashback to the wedding chapel massacre—jitters with a tension-packed, emotion-rich confrontation between Bill and the Bride. The supporting players develop with that flair that you’ve got when you’re working at the top of your game, and a few well-placed moments can create an almost tragic fallen warrior in the beaten-down Budd, or a purring devil out of Bill’s Mexican mentor SeÃ±or Esteban (Michael Parks).
And at the center you’ve got Bill and the Bride. This is the kind of complex relationship that adds layers with every passing scene. The Bill of Vol. 1 who was a faceless instrument of death becomes—through an eye-opening performance by Carradine—a hard man whose actions still betray his personal attachments. Thurman adds to the relentless warrior a battle between her desire for justice and other erupting emotions, leading to a final confrontation that’s less about clashing swords than it is about clashing desires. It ends the only way it can—the title is sort of a giveaway, after all—but at the same time, it doesn’t end with the whoop of applause you’d expect from a revenge epic.
Maybe there’s a little bit of me that’s sorry about that. Vol. 1 was so thrilling that this talkier, more introspective follow-up brings with it a touch of letdown—if for no other reason than there’s nothing to match the dizzying heights of the House of the Blue Leaves melee. But that’s what can happen when you take your tale in a surprising direction. You can’t fool us with those closing credits that include all the characters from both films. There’s a good reason for this two-hour chunk to stand on its own. As cool as Vol. 1 was, you showed with Vol. 2 that revenge is also a dish that can be served warm.