The second volume of Kill Bill is a marked improvement upon its predecessor, in that the viewer, rather than being bombarded with the first volume’s THC-inspired stylistic excess, is invited to pick the finest toy from a Cracker Jack box. Alas, a toy is still a toy. Like the first film, Tarantino tries to have it both ways. He wants you to sympathize with his paper-thin characters, here serviced by repeated moments of Uma Thurman sobbing in anguish. But he also wants you to buy into the comic book absurdity of Gordon Liu balancing his entire weight on the edge of a sword. Sure, the latter image is fun (though not as enjoyable as a later swordfight in a trailer mobile home). But with Liu repeatedly fingering his wispy, spirit gummed beard and throwing it off to one side, I had to wonder if I was supposed to enjoy this juvenile joke, or the whole film was an inside joke, or I’ve simply grown tired of movies that aren’t cemented in anything even remotely real. Do the repeated shots of Thurman’s feet represent Tarantino’s camera as fetish? And what’s with all the flabby ass jokes? Awareness of physical deterioration?
Kill Bill Volume 2 is a mess. It’s an enjoyable mess. But it’s also the mark of a filmmaker throwing in the towel, perhaps to fight again another day with his promised World War II movie. The usual Tarantinoisms are here. We have a Mexican standoff. We have a lecture on Superman. We have an eyeball kicked around on the floor. And if you close your eyes while David Carradine is speaking and change the modulation, you can just see Tarantino delivering his own dialogue with the same intonations. None of it is real.
There is one great seedy moment at an unpopulated bar where Michael Madsen is trying to explain to his employer why he’s twenty minutes late, and the bar owner, doing lines of coke and ordering some scantily clad cosnort to sit, begins crossing off days of the week that Madsen is supposed to work. The moment doesn’t add anything at all to the story, except perhaps to explain some of the circumstances which have turned Madsen into a margarita-swilling, rocksalt shotgun-firing, sad sack ex-assassin. But didn’t the scene before this with David Carradine already establish this? Is Tarantino cognizant of the maturity he displayed in Jackie Brown and does he miss it?
The disorganization here, which caused Tarantino to split Kill Bill into two movies, left me wondering if Tarantino was trying a grindhouse take on Leone, if only through length alone. But as goofy as Once Upon a Time in the West is, the film was still about something. Henry Fonda may have been the American West’s cinematic face inverted into a ruthless villain, but the film’s story was strong enough to transcend homage. There were dreams and plans and characters learning to live with loss (whether through Charles Bronson’s vengeance or Claudia Cardinale carrying out her late husband’s plans for a railroad post). By contrast, “real life” in the Kill Bill universe involves snuggling up with your daughter and “popping in a video,” almost indistinguishable from a Lifetime TV movie. Hardly the place where grand plans are forged. In fact, the film comes across as black and white as its wedding rehearsal prologue.
Tarantino, at 41, is too old for these adolescent hijinks. In fact, it’s rather interesting to me that the Kill Bill films have come while another major Miramax king, Kevin Smith, was recently derided for his segue into “adult” territory with Jersey Girl. But at least Smith tried something different. Is it possible that Tarantino is too frightened to evolve? Women are presented as one-dimensional objects and repeatedly misunderstood by Tarantino (to the point where women cannot understand easy-to-comprehend pregnancy test instructions) — all this while Tarantino remains too prudish to expose his candid and potentially creepy feelings for them on screen, much like his hero Brian De Palma. (And is Thurman’s inability to understand Cantonese a slam on former Tarantino girlfriend Mira Sorvino, who is fluent in the language?)
Perhaps I should be relieved that Kill Bill Volume 2 offers a return to long takes, dialogue-centered scenes and snappy repartee. But it’s doubtful that Tarantino can spend an entire career riffing on the same theme and be regarded with any staying power. Then again, when the bar’s as low as it is in Hollywood and accounts are regularly fattened, ingenuity is the first commodity to go. In Tarantino’s case, it’s a grand shame.
[UPDATE: It would appear that Tarantino’s content to keep the formula. In a Newsweek interview last year, Tarantino noted, “If I were to just keep expanding on that ‘Jackie Brown’ thing, you know, in 15 years’ time I would be making some really geriatric movies. The thing is, I don’t need to prove that I can do that with each new movie—because I’ve already proven I can do that. This time I wanted to grow as a filmmaker by what I consider exciting filmmaking.” What’s worse? “Geriatric” movies or infantile ones?]