I'll admit I had my reservations about last year's Kill Bill: Vol. 1. For starters, I suspected very few audience members would really grasp that the film was a slavish tribute to Asian action films of yesteryear. Tarantino has never been shy about citing his influences. But I fear few viewers are as film savvy as he is. To the hoi polloi, Tarantino's a down-and-dirty entertainment machine borrowing the best stuff from films they've never seen anyway and mashing them into irresistible pop cultural nuggets. Instead of recognizing nods to old Shaw Brothers chopsockey flicks and to director Kenji Misumi's Zatoichi/Lone Wolf and Cub films, most casual viewers probably saw Kill Bill, thought “Whoa, kick ass!” and left it at that. To the cinematic elite, however, Tarantino's a thief raiding the back shelves of video stores to supplement his limited imagination. But “geniuses steal, beggars borrow,” as the old saying goes. If even one person gets turned on to Shogun Assassin because of Kill Bill, then Tarantino's work is done.
My real reservation about Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was that it was only half a film: literally and figuratively. Tarantino's epic revenge story ended up being so long, he had to chop it in two. But—cliffhanger ending aside—the film still felt like it was only half there. “Kill Bill feels like something less than a full-fledged film,” I wrote in my review. “It's half a dozen of the coolest action sequences ever shot, but there's not much else to the film. It's possible, of course, that Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is loaded with intricate narrative and subtle character shading; but … I doubt it.” Shows you what I know.
With his second installment, Tarantino totally pulls the rug out from under his viewers. The first film introduced us to The Bride (Uma Thurman), a betrayed assassin waking up from a coma and going on a seek-and-destroy mission for the five people who done her wrong. After the two ornately bloody executions in the first movie, fans could reasonably expect more of the same with the remaining three names on our Bride's list. Not so fast.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is an entirely different animal. There's only one major fight scene in the entire film. While that might seem disappointing considering the first film's surfeit of action, it leaves loads of drama, character development and surprising plot twists in store for Vol. 2. The Bride's revenge kick isn't as straightforward as it would seem in the first film. Her next target, Budd (Michael Madsen) has retired from the killing game and is now living the Zen poverty lifestyle in a cruddy trailer home in the middle of nowhere. “We deserve to die,” he admits. One-eyed she-devil Ellie Driver (Daryl Hannah) has a different take on things. She wants The Bride hacked into tiny bits. And then, of course, there's Bill (David Carradine), The Bride's ex-boss and ex-lover. What exactly does he want?
The acting, which took a backseat to firehoses full of blood in the first film, moves front and center here. Carradine gets one of those John Travolta-sized career revivals with his chilling interpretation of icy cool killer/kingpin Bill. (When did Kwai Chang Caine get so damn scary?) Michael Madsen gives a palpable world-weariness to his burned-out (but still dangerous) bruiser. Hannah, with her swirling sword and banshee scream, seems like she's having the most fun on screen since Blade Runner. And Uma … well, what can you say.
What makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such a brilliant film is the way that it confounds expectations. As a single, three-hour narrative, I'm not sure it could have done that. By splitting the film in two, Tarantino has played a wonderful trick on audiences, saving the best for last and capping off an unforgettable revenge saga filled with winking tributes, subversive comedy, blistering action and heart-pounding drama.