At a moment when movies are fixated instead on special effects, CGI, cyborgs, aliens, hobbits — in short, everything except human beings — it’s downright refreshing to find a film that makes us care about the battered and fatally flawed bodies subjected to its narrative.
— B. Ruby Rich, “Day of the Woman” (Sight & Sound, June 2004)
In Kill Bill 2, the Bride has to really fight to survive.
— Uma Thurman, “Making of Kill Bill Vol. 2“
“I’m the man.” Bill (David Carradine) offers this frat-boy’s self-assessment in both Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2, by way of explaining his seeming genius and tendency to win. At the start of the sequel, he uses this line to answer the Bride’s (Uma Thurman) query: how did he find her, when she’s tried to hard to elude him, to start her life anew. He’s found her, he says, because he’s “the man.”
The assertion makes him seem utterly awful, forceful, and killable. He is the man, in every sense. And the Bride must have her revenge on him for just that reason. This reduction of plot and motive is what you might expect at the center of a film by Quentin Tarantino. As he says in the “making of” documentary included on Miramax’s 10 August DVD release (likely to be only preliminary, as it is short on extras; the two-film DVD package will probably offer more), “There’s not much more story. I could come up with some other crap that would be subterfuge. But no, I hate that in movies. Let’s just get rid of the crap and have the confidence to tell a revenge movie.” (It’s worth noting that for this interview, he’s wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of himself as a Simpsons character.)
Bill is the Bride’s lover and mentor, her father figure and the father of her child. Most importantly, he is her killer. Standing amid wind and dust in El Paso, Bill means to possess the Bride, and she means to be free of him, to rediscover her own life and, crucially, her maternity. Just after she learns she is pregnant, she’s attacked by a stone killer with a shotgun and, according to her, dead aim. “Well guess what,” says the Bride, “I’m better than Annie Oakley and I got you right in my sight. So let’s talk. Karen, I just found out, right now, not a moment before you blew a hole through the door, that I’m pregnant.” This changes everything.
Like Vol. 1, the second installment comes 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 twisted up 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 reminiscent of those told to Kung Fu‘s “Little Grasshopper”) 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.
Built on 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 entirely 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. She’s also a dirty fighter, and quite thrilling to watch. 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 quite apparent, 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 her 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 and engages her in a shooting game. Always on the verge of being overwhelmed by her desire for revenge, 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 Beatrix gives the lie to such supposition, as her devastating pain and vibrant emotional life are available in every gorgeous frame.