Friday, April 16, 2004
The credits of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies read, "Based on the character of 'The Bride' created by Q & U." That would be Tarantino and Uma Thurman, star of the two-part "Kill Bill" project, Volume 2 of which opens today.
In "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" Thurman proved herself to be a worthy muse: Even as Tarantino obsessively lingered over her elongated limbs, huge eyes and preternaturally limber feet, she managed to inject spirit and humanity into an otherwise thoroughly fetishistic project. "Vol. 1" was Tarantino's homage to the martial arts movies he grew up watching in the grind houses of Los Angeles' shabbier precincts; it was an orgy of blood and carefully choreographed violence, which had no deep meaning or import but admittedly possessed a contagious vigor and moments of elegant visual style.
If "Vol. 1" was Tarantino's eastern (the yellow track suit Thurman wore in the film was a nod toward Bruce Lee in the chopsocky revenge flick "Game of Death"), "Vol. 2" is his western, and instead of Bruce Lee, Thurman is Clint Eastwood. Beaten, bloodied, muddied and scowling, her character, the Bride, has returned to finish the job she started in "Vol. 1": avenging her near-murder on the eve of her wedding four years earlier.
Viewers will remember that in the last installment the Bride dispatched two of her would-be murderers, played by Vivica A. Fox and Lucy Liu, in a series of increasingly operatic bloodbaths. Here, she's going after the final three names on her list: Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (David Carradine). The last, of course, is head of the assassination outfit she used to work for, her former lover and the father of the child she was carrying when he ordered her colleagues to kill her.
Tarantino's fans are understandably jacked up about "Vol. 2," having had their ganglia jangled so expertly throughout the first movie. Those viewers will need to adjust their expectations, if not their entire metabolisms, to accommodate this very different film. Slow, quiet, methodical and talky, "Vol. 2" dispenses with the dazzling action and cutting of "Vol. 1" and instead concentrates on characters -- how they look, what they say and what's going on between them.
This was what made Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" such a bracing departure for the director: Those conversations between Robert Forster and Pam Grier were perfectly orchestrated duets. But here the characters aren't deep or intelligent enough to make their feuds and rituals and endless conversations remotely interesting. Watching "Vol. 2" is like being lectured for two hours by a film geek: It's clear that Tarantino has seen every Hong Kong movie, horror film, western and cheesy 1970s television show ever made, but it's not at all clear why we should care.
Like "Vol. 1," "Vol. 2" is presented in a series of chapters, which themselves are a series of set pieces, only a few of which pivot on physical action. There is a nasty fight between the Bride and Bill's brother Budd, which culminates in the movie's most memorable and discomfiting scrape, which Thurman's character literally punches her way out of; there's an encounter between Budd and the eye-patched Elle Driver, then the highly anticipated catfight between Driver and the Bride.
And, of course, there's the final showdown between the Bride and Bill, a face-off that, like so much of the rest of the film, is mostly taken up with long, windy disquisitions -- in this case on the cultural implications of comic book superheroes and something about worker bees. Tarantino has charmed highbrow audiences by overlaying the graphic violence of his films with cheeky, pseudo-intellectual monologues about pop culture detritus. Here, the shtick is revealed as just that, a mannerism as tiresome and artistically bankrupt as the endless shots of Thurman's and Carradine's feet, the spurts of aren't-I-a-bad-boy profanity and the bursts of misogynistic cruelty.
This is not to say that "Vol. 2" doesn't have its good points. Once again, the RZA (aka Robert Diggs) has composed, or perhaps more accurately collected, a fantastic musical score and soundtrack, here mostly taken from Ennio Morricone and '70s organ vamps. And Tarantino's collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson continues to be a fruitful one, especially during the sequence in which the Bride learns kung fu at the feet of the monk Pei Mei (legendary Chinese martial arts star Gordon Liu). These scenes have a grainy, high-contrast look that is altogether fitting for the edgy relationship between student and master (they also include the film's most delightful stunt, when Pei Mei defends himself against the Bride's sword by lightly balancing on top of its blade).
Thurman, too, is as transfixing a heroine as she was in "Vol. 1." Indeed, she's so good it's possible to say that Tarantino doesn't deserve her. In no film in recent memory -- including "Dogville" -- has a lead actress been as abused, disfigured, defiled and treated as hatefully as Uma Thurman in the "Kill Bill" films. Indeed, no actress in "Vol. 2" manages to get out without suffering some physical indignity, whether it's having an eye gouged out or a lip split open. Academic debates will no doubt ensue as to whether Tarantino's treatment of women is a backhanded form of empowerment or simply bald, unapologetic contempt. In any event, watching Thurman's character "triumph" in a context as joyless and self-referential as Tarantino's is a soul-deadening experience, one that over two hours takes on the same dreary monotone as the cheapest pornography. Presumably, "Kill Bill" was a lot of fun for Q & U, but there's very little room in this hermetic world for I & Thou.