Kill Bill Vol. 2 Review
When it was announced that Kill Bill, the fifth film by Quentin Tarantino (not fourth, as the advertizing claimed), was going to be split into two parts, widespread condemnation was quick across the board. Conspiracy theories abounded, the most prevalent being that distributor Miramax's owners, the notorious Weinstein brothers, smelling the opportunity to make an extra buck or two, had decided to steal a page or two from the book of the Lord of the Rings franchise they foolishly turned down a number of years ago. In reality, the reason is simple. Tarantino was faced with the choice of either releasing an incredibly long movie or cutting it down and, loath to shorten it in any way, shape or form, decided to release it in two separate installments. In any event, Vol. 2 was incomplete at the time of Vol. 1's release, and indeed its release date was pushed back from February to April so Tarantino could fine-tune it.
Convoluted studio politics aside, the story should be reasonably well-known to most people with an interest in modern mainstream cinema. The plot is simplicity in itself: Uma Thurman plays the Bride, a former member of a group known as the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. Four years ago, she defected from the gang, ran off and decided to get married. On the day of her wedding rehearsal, her fellow DiVAS showed up at the wedding chapel, massacred the entire congregation and left her for dead. The Bride remained in a coma for four years, but one day she suddenly awakened and, fuelled by hatred for the people that killed her husband and unborn daughter, decided to hunt them down and kill them all, the grand finale being the head of the gang, Bill (David Carradine). Vol. 1 saw her killing first O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and then Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), presented, in typical Tarantino fashion, in reverse order, climaxing with the audience's discovery that her daughter was, in fact, still alive. Vol. 2, therefore, deals with the Bride exacting revenge on the final three members of the squad: Budd (Michael Madsen), who now lives out his days in a trailer in the desert, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), the ruthless one-eyed bitch from hell, and of course Bill, the witty and charming but completely ruthless individual who masterminded it all.
Rather than beginning from where the first instalment left off, Vol. 2 kicks off with a recap of Vol. 1's opening, followed by an introduction by Uma Thurman that essentially spells out the mission statement of the film. We then go back in time and see the events leading up to the wedding chapel massacre that placed the Bride in a coma. For Tarantino, this is nothing new. Anyone who saw Pulp Fiction or indeed Kill Bill Vol. 1 will know that he loves to tell his stories out of sequence. Rather than presenting the events in a logical, chronological order, he shows the various scenes in the order that will have the most effect. Imagine, for example, if the saga had begun with the events before the Bride ended up in a coma (many of which I will not mention here, due to their spoilerific status), and Vol. 1 had ended with the slaying of Vernita Green rather than O-Ren: the film would have been completely robbed of its effect. Therefore, while some people have criticized Tarantino's non-linear narratives, accusing him of using it as a cheap gimmick to cover up a lack of substance, I'm afraid I don't agree. Something Tarantino himself pointed out, with regard to Pulp Fiction, during an appearance on the show of US southern journalist Charlie Rose, is that, had he written a book and told it out of sequence, no-one would have questioned it. Essentially, his argument was that cinema should have the same freedom of structure that literature does, and that is something I can't disagree with.
A favourite pass-time of movie buffs seems to be to highlight every single occasion on which Tarantino has referenced or "ripped off" another movie (movies whose existence many of them probably weren't aware of before Tarantino drew attention to them). Certainly, it can't really be argued that Tarantino is doing anything that hasn't been done before, but what makes him such a unique director is not what he does, but the way he does it. He may be borrowing right, left and centre from every film under the sun, but no-one else can do it with the level of panache that is present in his work. For a lesser director to attempt to do what Tarantino does with the Kill Bill saga, the mish-mash of different influences, references and direct lifts from other movies would have come off as crass plagiarism, but it is clear with these films that, despite mocking the conventions of the various types of film he references, he has a great deal of respect for them. The performance of Gordon (Chia Hui) Liu, in the role of the Bride's cruel instructor, Pai Mei, is undeniably played for laughs much of the time, but the character has substance, and plays a vital role in the story. The film is definitely satirical in nature, but the beauty of it is the way that, rather than merely poking fun at the films he is referencing, Tarantino shows a genuine understand and respect for the various types of film that Kill Bill pays homage to. Both volumes are ripe with references both to cinema as a whole and to Tarantino's own ouevre. For instance, Daryl Hannah wears the same suit worn by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, while Hannah's character's one-eyed appearance is a reference to cult Swedish exploitation film Thriller: A Cruel Picture (now finally garnering attention thanks to Tarantino's hyping of it). Some people have criticized both films for being all style and no substance, but I see plenty of substance - certainly more than enough to be satisfactory. I can only assume that these people were perhaps expecting something more from Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman's respective IQs of 160 and 182.
Vol. 2 is a good deal less gory than its predecessor, offering something of a contrast between their Japanese and Western (Spaghetti and American) influences. That said, the fight between Elle Driver and the Bride, which I'm sure most people have at least heard about by now, is comically violent in the extreme, and the exact details of her demise (or is it?) are sure to set the more squeamish of viewers squirming. As a result, there is nothing as outlandish as the anime sequence or fight in the House of Blue Leaves from Vol. 1, meaning that, this time round, no extra-gory cut was prepared for Japanese audiences. Particularly impressive is the cinematography of Robert Richardson, who matches the look of the various segments to the sources they imitate in a way that makes them look genuine. The Pai Mei sequence, for example, designed as an homage to Kung-Fu movies from the 70s, features copious use of silhouettes and rear-projection, and a rough, grainy film stock.
Yet, for all its well-choreographed action, sumptuous photography and witty repartee, the film is held together by the convincing performances of its leads. Uma Thurman once again excels as the Bride, treading the fine line between sincerity and melodrama. Some of the lines she has to spout border on the ridiculous, but she delivers them with so much conviction that you can't help but believe in her as this character. ("What the fuck did you just shoot me with?" gets my award for most hilariously-read line of the year.) It's also quite incredible to see her effortlessly switch between the steely-eyed assassin of the present day and her younger, slightly goofy counterpart in the flashback showing her training. The real ace in the hole, however, is David Carradine as Bill. After only being treated to fleeting glimpses of him in Vol. 1, it's great to finally meet the man himself. Carradine plays Bill as a level-headed, whimsical fellow, which makes his sudden flashes of malice all the more surprising. Elsewhere, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen and the aforementioned Gordon Liu all turn in energetic performances. Indeed, Madsen manages to evoke some pathos via his performance as Budd, the once deadly assassin who now wastes away his life.
A lot has been made of Vol. 2's pacing, and it's certainly true that it runs slow at times, particularly in comparison to the relatively sprightly Vol. 1. Indeed, the opening sequences, featuring first the run-up to the wedding chapel massacre and then various scenes establishing the character of Budd, seem a little drawn-out. It's clear that Tarantino is in love with his movie and unwilling to trim it down, and although I can certainly see validity in the various criticisms of the collective running time of the two volumes (over 4 hours in total), it certainly makes a change to see a film that runs at its own pace, with each scene taking its time to develop, in comparison to the current minimalist style adopted by most filmmakers. Kill Bill tells the kind of story that, if cut down to its bare minimum, would probably not run for very long at all and would, in my opinion, have been infinitely less satisfying.
Overall, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is about the same as Vol. 1 in terms of quality. While it is less consistent overall, featuring more highs and more lows than its predecessor, Vol 2. should appeal to anyone who enjoys excessive style and plenty of fun. It rounds off the saga nicely, tying up its loose ends and providing a more than satisfying conclusion.
Presented anamorphically in its original ratio of 2.39:1, this transfer looks a good deal nicer than my Japanese Kill Bill Vol. 1 DVD. At the present time I don't have access to a UK DVD of Vol. 1 to compare it, but I get the impression that there has been a fairly significant improvement in image quality between the DVD releases of the two films. The heavy edge enhancement and noise reduction prevalent on the Japanese Vol. 1 DVD are mercifully absent here, resulting in an image that is fairly detailed and naturalistic. As previously mentioned, a number of different film stocks are on display - from the ultra-smooth black and white introduction by Uma Thurman to the grainy, contrasty black and white wedding chapel sequence, from the crisp, yellow-tinted desert scenes to the hazy, grainy sequence where the Bride is trained by Pai-Mei - and all are presented an a manner that is faithful to their original theatrical exhibition. Some of the problems present on the Japanese Vol. 1 DVD are still apparent to a lesser degree - there is some edge enhancement and a slight softness - but overall this is a satisfying presentation.
As with Vol. 1, separate English Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks are featured. Both are very competent, but they lack the extra spark that made Vol. 1's audio outstanding. Surround activity is a great deal more limited than in the first outing, although this is no doubt due to the fact that Vol. 2 features a lot more dialogue and a lot less fighting. The surrounds certainly kick in to back up the music and the fight scenes, but overall this track is by nature a lot less in-your-face.
An audio descriptive track for the blind is also included. Subtitles are featured in English for the entire movie, although by default they are only enabled for the brief foreign-language exchanges (all of which take place during the Pai-Mei scenes). Buena Vista have done a reasonable job of mimicking the look of the theatrical subtitles with a player-generated variant on the DVD, although it's a shame burned-in subtitles were not used instead.
The menus are nicely laid-out and easy to use, and transitions are, for the most part, kept to a mercifully short length.
There are a total of 20 chapter stops.
The packaging artwork is pretty awful in my opinion, featuring a frighteningly over-airbrushed picture of Uma Thurman and a rather uninspired layout. The Japanese version's cover, in contrast, looks much more inspired.
One thing I really should mention is the case used for this release. Externally it looks like a normal amaray, but the clip inside that holds the disc in place is completely different from what you would expect. It is overly tight and, as a result, my disc developed cracks on its inner ring after only a couple of days. I now keep the disc inside a plastic CD wallet, and I would urge other owners of this release to do the same, lest they find their disc cloven in two one day.
There is no chapter insert. There is, however, a discount coupon for cheap alcohol, proving beyond any doubt that this is a British release.
As with Vol. 1, there isn't really much in the way of bonus materials. This time round, there isn't even a theatrical trailer, presumably because it was already included on the Vol. 1 DVD.
The Making of Kill Bill Vol. 2 - This is essentially 26 minutes of promotional material, where everyone involved does a great deal of back-patting, a copious amount of material from the film is played, and the audiences learns very little that it couldn't have figured out for itself. One of the few interesting pieces of information garnered here is reasonably common knowledge thanks to sources such as IMDB, but it's still nice to see some visual proof: that the character of Pai Mei is not a creation of Tarantino's, but rather a common villain in 70s Kung-Fu flicks.
Premire Chingon performance - A live performance by composer (and filmmaker) Robert Rodriguez and his band of some of the songs and music he composed for the film.
Deleted scene - This intriguing deleted scene is an amusing little encounter between Bill and a would-be assassin (played by Michael Jai White), and for the life of me I can't understand why it was cut from the final film when so much else was left in. Unfortunately the presentation is a little sloppy, with no introduction or explanation of the scene's relevance or context.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is given a solid audio-visual presentation while being rather disappointing in terms of bonus features. A deluxe box set will undoubtedly be released at some point in the near future, but until then, or for those who just want the movie itself, this release should be absolutely fine.