Kill Bill Vol. 2

June 14 2004, 0 Comments

Many people complained bitterly about Quentin Tarantino being allowed to head up the Grand Jury at Cannes this year. After all, he only has five movies under his belt. My opinion? Let them watch the two Kill Bill movies: the man is a genius.

Those of you who watched the first movie will know what this one is about: Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a professional killer seeking revenge for the murder of her entire bridal party on the day of her wedding by her former boss, Bill. The second movie quickly informs us that this did not in fact take place on the wedding day, but rather on the day of the wedding rehearsal. I don’t think that mitigates Bill’s crime though. The Bride is pretty pissed at him: she’s out to kill Bill. The havoc she wreaks in extracting her revenge is some of the most violent cinema I’ve ever watched.

It was Tarantino himself who ushered in an era of unbridled violence to movie screens (who can forget the ‘cutting off the ear’ scene in Reservoir Dogs?). The word ‘Tarantinoesque’ is even used nowadays to describe crime movies depicting excessive violence (there have been hosts of them since the success of Pulp Fiction). The thing about Tarantino’s portrayal of violence though, is that it seems neither excessive nor gratuitous in his films. I’ve always said of John Woo that he has the ability to make death look stylish; Tarantino makes death look funny (honestly: who didn’t laugh when John Travolta blew that guy’s head off in the back of the car in Pulp Fiction?).

Even during the prolonged sequence where Thurman’s character mows down the “Crazy Eighty-Eight” gang in Kill Bill Vol. 1, the violence isn’t at a level that makes us flinch: blood squirts comically from decapitated heads and severed limbs, and the entire sequence is filmed in monochrome – lessening the impression of gore that red blood would have given. In fact, only three people die on screen in Volume 2. The only time the violence gets really visceral is when it’s at a level of personal injury that we can all relate to; such as the scene in the first film where the recently conscious Bride slams the hospital attendant’s head in the doorway, and during her training with Pai Mei (played by Gordon Liu) in the second film where you can see the skin scraping off her knuckles as she punches a wooden board.

There are critics who have stated that Tarantino could have made one movie of about two and half hours cutting out some of the slower scenes and leaving in all the action bits, instead of “indulging his ego” over two movies. I completely disagree with that. The beauty of these two films is in the details. Had Tarantino been forced to cut them, a lot of those details would have been lost, and this might as well have been another ‘Tarantinoesque’ film, rather than the genuine article.

Using those little details Tarantino gives a nod to all the genres, movies and directors from whom he draws inspiration for this film – many influences are evident. Like the sudden close-ups to Pai Mei’s facial expressions: those in the audience who were in on the joke let out a little chuckle at the reference to those classic Hong Kong Shaolin movies of which Gordon Liu himself was a star.

And just like those Hong Kong films, the fight scenes in Kill Bill are not merely action diversions, but functional parts of the narration of the story. Consider the sublime fight scene between The Bride and Elle Driver in Budd’s cramped trailer: it includes a running gag involving the impossibility of drawing a full-length samurai sword within the confines of a run-down camper. That sort of detail in a fight scene had to be written in – unlike the throwaway fights in most Hollywood action movies that are choreographed by stunt directors, without the involvement of a screenwriter’s wit.

Although the film’s Oriental influences are obvious – right down to the samurai sword which is The Bride’s weapon of choice – the movie also has plenty of touches from the good old spaghetti westerns. Most of the second film is set in El Paso, Texas and Mexico – classic western locations. There’s a beautiful symmetry in this: the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa incorporated elements of westerns into his magnificent samurai films, and Hollywood in turn borrowed back from him liberally for later western classics such as A Fistful of Dollars. Indeed, there is a strong parallel between the renegade western outlaw, and the lone samurai Ronin. Tarantino blends the aesthetics of these two genres skillfully and adds his own modern touch: the renegade warrior in this film is female.

Tarantino’s films have been successful vehicles for forgotten actors to make a comeback (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown), and a lot has been said about David Carradine’s superb role in Kill Bill. However, one of the actors who I feel also makes a return to form in this movie is Darryl Hannah. She has always showed a lot of promise but seems mainly to have been typecast as a blonde bimbo. Her cold-hearted portrayal of the ruthless Elle Driver displays a completely different side to Hannah. And I don’t think she’s ever looked better on screen.

After now having seen both instalments of Kill Bill, I am satisfied that Tarantino is justly able to pass judgement upon the films of others at Cannes. The sheer volume of references to other movies in his own films shows his awesome knowledge of the screen trade. And the skill with which he directs and writes certainly places him firmly amongst the echelons of other film greats, and head-and shoulders above his peers.

If you can stomach the violence (and I assure you: it’s more stylistic than brutal), and appreciate the grim wit that coloured Tarantino’s earlier films, you will love both volumes of Kill Bill.

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