Watching both halves of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill back-to-back is an interesting experience. It did not seem to me that the pictures were intended to be two parts of a whole, although of course they were. They seem like two separate pictures, each one an homage to a different sort of exploitation film that Tarantino might have seen in his youth. Each is fantastic, but fantastic for different reasons than the other, and treating them as a whole might actually do each one a slight disservice.
Taken by itself, Kill Bill Vol. 1 might well be my favorite Tarantino film. It has an efficiency and brutal brevity that, among Tarantino’s films, only Reservoir Dogs can match. There are some typically Tarantino digressions with dialogue, but they are always circling around the theme of the movie, as explained in voiceover by Sonny Chiba at the beginning: single-minded focus and dispassionate brutality are at the heart of combat.
It’s rather amazing that Tarantino thinks he can just walk in and direct a film with such a complicated martial-arts fight at its centerpiece. Yuen Woo-Ping, the fight choreographer of this film, is a Hong Kong legend who trained at the same Peking opera school that later produced Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. His fights have a distinct style, and Tarantino should not be able to put any signature touches on them, because even though he has watched a lot of Kung fu epics this is one film undertaking where just being a fan isn’t enough. Yet somehow he pulls it off.
Just think about it: Uma Thurman, as the vengeful Bride, arrives in Tokyo to the tune of the theme from that famed Bruce Lee-starring TV show The Green Hornet, dressed in Lee’s yellow-and-black jumpsuit from Game of Death. Tarantino is saying that he’ll put this film up against the best that the genre ever produced, and he’ll compare the Western woman with no martial-arts experience to Bruce Lee himself. (Although the great stunt performer Zoe Bell, who doubled for Thurman, deserves a huge amount of the credit too.) The sheer confidence of it all is breathtaking.
After that virtuoso technical display, the second film oddly abandons technique almost completely. It has some fine set pieces, but it doesn’t build to anything as show-stopping as the Crazy 88 fight scene. The thing I like most about it is that it basically turns the theme of Volume 1 on its head: while dispassionate brutality might be at the heart of combat, it’s not at the heart of revenge. Revenge is by its very nature personal and passionate, and the Bride is confronted with that fact in a very powerful way.
The problem is that Bill (David Carradine) and the Bride both want to get to the why of her quest for revenge, which requires a lot of dialogue right at the moment when we’d like to see the Bride … y’know, kill Bill. The Superman monologue that Carradine delivers during that scene is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent, going on a long digression into pop culture ephemera. Worse, the monologue basically happens for no reason, because the implication of the speech – that the Bride considers “normal” people to be lame and weak – is barely approached and quickly ignored.
However, if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s pictures then you’re not afraid of a lot of dialogue, even self-indulgent dialogue. This is where watching the pictures back-to-back becomes an issue: it’s not easy to switch your mind from the samurai showdown that ends Volume 1 and switch to the more tense dialogue interplay of Volume 2, even for fans of Tarantino’s style. Volume 1 is insanely gory – the fight with the Crazy 88 is mostly in black and white to avoid an NC-17 rating – and Volume 2 isn’t. Volume 2 has much more music by famed Wu-Tang Clan producer The RZA than Volume 1. The only real connection between the two films is the Kung-fu training sequence with Pai Mei (the legendary Gordon Liu, who also appears as the leader of the Crazy 88 in Volume 1), which is as much a martial-arts trope as the Crazy 88 battle, but it’s still not the same thing as watching a one-on-88 fight.*
I would never ever say that Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a bad movie; it’s terrific. The buried-alive sequence is genuinely scary, and every non-Superman monologue by Carradine is great. Volume 2 just wasn’t quite the film I wanted to see immediately after Volume 1.** It’s possible that Harvey Weinstein understood that a lot of viewers would have that problem, and that it was part of the reason the movies were split in two. Whatever the reason was, it was without question the right call. These are two great films that share the same story, but they don’t necessarily go well together.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Yes, I’m aware that there weren’t actually 88 of them and that the name just sounds cool.
**One example of a nice film to watch after Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Gordon Liu’s masterpiece, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.