Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Kill Bill Vol. 2
aka Kill Bill Vol.2 : USA 2004 : Quentin TARANTINO : 136 mins
Yes, no matter what you might have read elsewhere, the enigmatic-sounding “Vol.2“ really is the title of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie. Except it isn’t enigmatic at all, of course, as everyone knows this is the second volume of Kill Bill: one single four-hour film (plus extended end-credits) and released, for commercial reasons, in two separate chunks. The ‘Vol.2’ business isn’t only an affectation (though an affectation it certainly is) – it signals Tarantino’s demand that we approach Kill Bill as a single entity, which will be seen for the first time at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.
Fair enough. Kill Bill does not warrant its epic running-time. Given free rein by a remarkably indulgent Miramax, Tarantino has delivered a mammoth and wildly self-indulgent B-movie. As has been widely acknowledged, it’s a pastiche/parody/homage/travesty of the cinematic genres Tarantino himself adores, from Shaw Bros Kung Fu to Film Noir to Sergio Leone western. But, above all else, Kill Bill emerges as a cinematic love-letter to its star, Uma Thurman. Tarantino’s characters seldom stop showering praise on the looks and skills of her character (previously known as The Bride, now coyly identified as Beatrix Kiddo) as she seeks revenge on her ex-boss Bill (David Carradine) and his henchpersons who so bloodily gatecrashed her wedding (actually, we’re now informed, it was a wedding rehearsal.)
And Tarantino’s camera (via Robert Richardson’s cinematography) goes all-out to turn Thurman/Kiddo into an ass-kicking screen goddess, with some spectacular results: her no-holds-barred trailer-bound cat-fight with the equally Amazonian Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) is one of Vol.2‘s genuine highlights. As is an extended sequence in which Beatrix is buried alive in a coffin and left for dead by Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen). Tellingly, very few words are spoken during either scene: Thurman is harrowingly convincing as she stoically endures punishing travails worthy of a Lars Von Trier heroine. But whenever she opens her mouth, the sound we hear is that limitations being exposed: Thurman’s as an actress, Tarantino’s as a writer.
On the evidence of Vol.2, the 40-year-old boy wonder would be best advised to either work from other people’s scripts, or perhaps seek the assistance of strong collaborators (if only to say “enough” every now and then). There’s very little memorable dialogue over the whole of the Kill Bill project – in the mouths of almost every character, the words ring hollow, straining much too hard towards some juvenile notion of ‘cool.’ Only the veteran Carradine seems to be able to carry it off – it’s a little like the way Ian McKellen made Tolkien sound Shakespearean in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bill, of course, never appeared at all during Kill Bill Vol.1 – and though he’s a much more visible and audible presence this time around, Carradine still leaves us wanting much more. (Incidentally, it’s now almost impossible to imagine Tarantino’s original choice Warren Beatty in the role.)
And too often when Carradine isn’t around, Kill Bill sags, padded out with superfluous and infuriatingly tangential scenes – a decent editor could probably cut the whole thing into nippy 140-minute shape with too much difficulty. Because it isn’t just in terms of dialogue that Tarantino’s screenplay falls down: there’s something thematically awkward about the whole enterprise. The project never quite squares the cartoonish violent-fairytale world that the characters inhabit with the idea that Beatrix’s emotions and the pain she endures are real and worthy of our sympathy.
This mismatch comes to a head when Beatrix escapes from her coffin via a technique that’s quite literally groundbreaking – but so howlingly implausible (magical, even) that it’s very hard to take anything afterwards at all seriously. And while the fantasy-world Tarantino concocts is often intriguing, it’s frustratingly riddled with internal inconsistencies: aged kung-fu uber-tutor Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) is amusingly presented as a quasi-superman – only for him to succumb to a mundane bowl of poisoned fish-heads. And the climactic Beatrix-Bill showdown is also notable for its decidedly old-school, lo-fi conclusion – perhaps the special-effects department simply ran out of cash.
It seems safe to say that Tarantino’s reach exceeded his grasp: then again, there’s little doubt that he has that rare type of sheer ability and swaggering audaciousness that means his ‘vision’ of the project is pretty much what we end up with on the screen. The Tarantino who emerges isn’t an especially endearing sort, of course: towards the end, Vol.2 reveals its auteur as a reactionary sentimentalist, fond of cloyingly twee touches (on-screen titles identifying Beatrix by her various nicknames end with one reading ‘Mommy’; ‘The Bride’ character is presented as being conceived by ‘Q + U’ – i.e. Quentin + Uma). And both heroine and movie go all goo-goo as soon as Beatrix and Bill’s moppet B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine), at which point the film pretty much runs out of gas. Instead of going out on a high, Kill Bill sputters to a halt with a baffling final scene in which great prominence is given to a TV cartoon about magpies.
Saying that, the to-the-death confrontation between Beatrix and Bill is handled with disarming elan – the pair remain seated as they clash samurai swords – reminding us that, at his best, Tarantino is capable of
remarkable things. He can be funny, surprising and vicious – occasionally all at once, as when Elle Driver suffers what must seem, for the visual stylist like Tarantino, a fate worse than death. Driver is, however, still alive and kicking when the credits roll – it’s teasingly hinted that we may even get a Vol.3 one day, which would presumably re-introduce us to the alluring Sofie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) from Vol.1, whose absence is a definite minus this time around.
These end-titles, while as wildly indulgent as everything else in Kill Bill, do feature a welcome ‘picture-credits’ section in which everyone who’s had a speaking part in either volume is shown and identified. This works like a whistle-stop recap of a project which, we realise – for all the fact that this is skimpy material is stretched way beyond justifiable length – has been sufficiently entertaining, idiosyncratic and innovative to make the whole damn thing worthwhile.
23rd April, 2004
(seen 20th April : Odeon, Gate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)
by Neil Young