Film

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Beatrix's survival depends on her weird combinations of passion, dispassion, and compassion.


Kill Bill Vol. 2

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Gordon Liu Jia-hui, Michael Parks, Samuel L. Jackson
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-04-15

"I'm the man." This self-assessment, offered by Bill (David Carradine) to explain his uncanny and frankly unnerving discovery of the Bride (Uma Thurman), sums up what makes him so awful, so forceful, and so killable. He is the man, in every sense. The Bride's lover and mentor, her father figure and the father of her child, he is also, most importantly, her killer. Standing amid wind and dust in El Paso, Bill means to possess the Bride, and she means to be free of him. Her efforts toward this end comprise the plot of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Like Vol. 1, this second installment comes at you out of sequence, so that the relationships and motivations (as far as these extend beyond "revenge") only become clear at film's end. Vol. 2 begins with a helpful bit of memory: the first scene from the first film, in which Bill tortures the Bride ("Do you find me sadistic?") appears in fragments, before the film cuts back to "Chapter Six, The Massacre at Two Pines." That is, the mass murder of the pregnant Bride and her wedding party by Bill and his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), preceded by a brief introduction of the about-to-be-killed groom and his parents -- as well as their hired piano player (Samuel L. Jackson) -- about whom Bill can only be cruelly condescending. It appears to be his weary nature.

Following the carnage that you already know about (indicated only on the soundtrack, as the camera hovers, high, outside), the film takes up the chronology you may recall from the first film, wherein the Bride has awakened from her coma and is now hunting down her killers; proceeding in order, she now takes after Budd, a.k.a. Sidewinder (Michael Madsen), Bill's brother, retired to a squalid house trailer, where he does his best to forget his assassin's life. Their initial encounter leads to yet another resurrection for the Bride: buried alive in a pine box, she has time to recall her happy days with Bill (as he instructs her with stories that sound rather like the "Little Grasshopper" allegories young Caine used to hear from his master) and her rigorous training with the great master Pei Mei (Shaw Brothers' favorite, Gordon Liu Jia-hui), whose elaborate brandishing of his snow-white beard emphasizes his lethal and explicitly masculine authority.

Kill Bill Vol. 2's efforts to demonstrate and undermine such authority are at once subtle and overwrought. As will be familiar to anyone who's seen a Tarantino movie, this tale of gendered and generational conflict is broadly allegorical and allusive. Each of the film's sequences, so carefully arranged and brilliantly scored by the RZA, Robert Rodriguez, and some Ennio Morricone lifts, focuses on the Bride's complicated and dangerous negotiations with men, as they endeavor to possess, control, and dominate her. Not to mention that her infamy as a quirkily beautiful woman, gifted martial artist, and wily assassin only makes her more desirable.

Yeah, yeah, same old story. And, to an extent, your response to it depends on your tolerance for excessive cleverness and reiteration. Vol. 2's shiny surface resonates differently than the first installment (and, no doubt, differently than the director's recently proposed third installment). Both films focus on intensely emotional relationships: in the first, these are represented in and as giddily intelligent and sometimes uproarious action sequences (each defining a particular relationship, say, between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii [Lucy Liu], or the Bride and Vernita [Vivica A. Fox]); this time out, the rhythms are less frantic, the structure less streamlined, more enamored of the loopy, long-pausey nuances of spaghetti Westerns and chopsocky movies.

The Bride stalks her final three adversaries relentlessly, finds herself beaten down repeatedly, and triumphs inexorably. The action scenes (again, advised by Yuen Woo-Ping) alternate with stretches of calculated, corny dialogue. Her every encounter -- brutal or chatty -- delineates the degrees of distrust, expertise, and aspiration that shape relationships among these reputation-obsessed professional killers.

Budd's efforts to shape (and really, to end) his relationship with Beatrix (at the behest of his brother, of course) bring him briefly, and rather grudgingly, out of retirement. His assault on her is as atrocious as anything that shows up in either film, as he blasts her with rock salt from his shotgun, kicks and beats on her, then buries her alive. Her impossible escape (inspired by her memories of Bill, and indeed, her fixation on killing him) is as crazy as anything else in the film, but it also shows off its greatest asset, that is, Uma Thurman. Earnest, resolute, and utterly convincing despite the mayhem that surrounds her, her Bride (whose name, we learn here, is Beatrix Kiddo, such that Bill keeps calling her "Kiddo," as if affectionately).

Beatrix's survival depends on her weird combinations of passion, dispassion, and compassion: she sheds tears repeatedly, giving the lie to that myth of stoic force, while soliciting all kinds of sympathy for her plight -- namely, a mother who doesn't know she's a mother. You, on the other hand, might be eagerly anticipating her reunion with four-year-old B.B. (Perla Honey-Jardine), as you've seen her at the close of Vol. 1. This tension doesn't quite make for emotional profundity, but it does stretch out the narrative line, from Budd to Bill.

One elasticizing element is Elle Driver, a.k.a. California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah), following up her previous nursey turn with an appearance that is at once comic, ferocious, angry, and, no small thing, girly. Given that Beatrix is so focused on her battles with the brothers in this installment, Elle appears a fellow victim of guys acting out (indeed, the harrowing story behind her missing eye is revealed here). Her own fight with Budd is flat-out nasty, suggesting that the DiVAS had their own infighting going on, even when they were all busily doing Bill's bidding. That particular history is not uncovered here, but Elle's delicious disdain for Budd is hard to miss, as she saunters into his trailer to purchase Beatrix's Hattori Hanzo sword for a million bucks.

In her discernible contempt, Elle stands (and kicks, and punches, and shoots, and swordfights) in some opposition to Beatrix, whose ferocity is less mean than resolute. Elle wears her long-term damage like a badge (or better, an eye patch), but Beatrix fixes her face in a sort of impassive mask, lip about to tremble, eyes cold, and hair wisp across her cheek. She turns fierce when she learns she's pregnant ("I'm the deadliest woman in the world," she informs an opponent just after she's read her home test, "Just look at the strip!") and she plays dead when little B.B. first meets her with a shooting game. Always on the verge of being overwhelmed by her desire for revenge, planless, imperfect, and improvised, she's so damaged that she can't stop, and so she keeps on.

That the movies don't quite keep up with her is unsurprising, as her eccentric cadence and implacable focus aren't really made for movies. Or better, they are lifted from so many movie sources that they're degenerated, as if Xeroxed too often. For some viewers, this is a sign of Tarantino's tendency to excessive quotation, his much-discussed efforts to school his audiences in the brilliance of his models. But if he is less original than a clever rearranger, he does know how to let pieces fall. And if Kill Bill is a pile of pieces, the Bride's pain apparent in every one.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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