Quentin Tarantino must have known he was taking a big gamble releasing his violent, revenge epic Kill Bill in two parts. In fact, it must have seemed a double-or-nothing bet: either he would double the takings and the acclaim, or cancel them out.
So, from the first frame, this Vol. 2 has its work cut out for it, trying to convince sceptical or cynical viewers that this story is really worth another trip to a cinema. And the very start is shaky, even for a huge fan of Vol. 1 like me.
The Bride (Uma Thurman), in a black-and-white segment which forms the basis for the trailer, drives and speaks directly to camera. She refers to her previous exploits as that movie we have already seen, speaking in the most florid language of sensational, B movie overkill.
Things get only marginally better in an elaborate segment of backstory – a flashback to the church massacre during a rehearsal for the Bride's wedding. Tarantino's moves here – such as the withdrawal of the camera away from the site of bloodshed – serve only to remind us of similar, better tricks in his earlier films.
But this scene at least manages to give us our first significant look at, and listen to, Bill (David Carradine). Slowly but surely, his place in the Bride's tumultuous life will be revealed – and with this information, all the deep themes of the story as a whole will magnificently unfold.
Whereas Vol. 1 seemed a merry but essentially meaningless experience, Vol. 2 has some big ideas in reserve about the nature of love, commitment and murder. By the time of the ultimate, remarkable showdown between these ex-lovers, there is even a touch of the grandly mythic.
Vol. 2 is a very different film from Vol. 1 – an initially disconcerting but finally very satisfying transformation. There is none of the jet-setting lyricism of Vol. 1, no scenes in Tokyo, no over-the-top exoticism. Set firmly on an American-Mexican axis, it reminds one occasionally of Robert Rodriguez's far inferior Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – and indeed Tarantino's pal Rodriguez pops up in the music credits.
Part of the thrill and charm of Vol. 1 was its unapologetically fragmentary construction – as if it were a succession of set-pieces snatched at random from a dozen exploitation cinema classics. Vol. 2 gears down to accommodate the hyper-declamatory, blabbermouth rhythm familiar from Tarantino's earlier works.
Just about every mystery left hanging in Vol. 1 finds its explanation here – especially those pertaining to the Bride and Bill. The sorts of words she offers him ("I would have leapt, by motorcycle, onto a blazing train for you!") start out sounding camp and corny, but eventually the film perfectly succeeds in hitting a delirious note of pure melodrama.
Vol. 2 returns us to Tarantino's first love for characterisation – and wizened old character actors. Michael Parks is especially impressive as Esteban, a brothel owner who facilitates the Bride's path to Bill. Even the glimpse of the Bride's quotidian gal pals – feisty but far removed from her former bloody milieu – is a treat.
The best scenes in Vol. 1 succeeded through excess – huge sets, a hundred extras, extravagant action. By contrast, the most ingenious and haunting scene in Vol. 2 takes place in almost total darkness, and draws all its power from a single, mounting sound effect – the heaping of dirt on the grave in which the Bride is being buried alive by Budd (Michael Madsen). And a major plot incident is ingeniously withdrawn from the Bride and handed to her brutal nemesis, Elle (Daryl Hannah).
Just to twist the screw of tension of the burial scene a little further, Tarantino decides to cut away at its highpoint for an extended flashback. This splendid narrative digression takes us through the Bride's advanced martial arts training under the stern hand of Pei Mai (Gordon Liu). Replete with over-saturated colours (as in an old, worn print of a '70s movie) and jolting, comic zooms in and out of faces, the scene relays and expands the pleasure of the scenes with the venerated swordmaker in Vol. 1.
In fact, it is only now, on seeing both parts, that we can appreciate the larger design of Tarantino's structure for the Bride's journey. Scenes and elements are not only relayed and expanded, they are (as narrative theorists say) anamorphosed. This is particularly the case in the relation between the first murder we see in Vol. 1, that of Vernita (Vivica A. Fox), and the finale, when at last the Bride reaches Bill.
Without spoiling the plot surprise for those who cannot see it coming, everything in the former scene that relates to daily, domestic life is given a heightened, comprehensive meaning in the latter scene.
The surest sign of Vol. 2's difference from Vol. 1 is that the Bride takes possession of her real name, on top of all the crazy tags she has already accumulated. And in the very last moment of the story she receives an extra, surprise name, the homeliest and loveliest of them all.
© Adrian Martin April 2004