Five-Chapter Film Exploding Heart Technique

Saturday, 17 April 2004 — 8:43pm | Film, Full reviews

Yesterday I wrote a reasonably thorough dissection of a problematic revenge-themed action flick more verbose than said movie deserved. In stark contrast, words are not enough to praise the concluding five chapters of the already-bisected Kill Bill.

When a movie delivers a forties-style rear projection driving scene, a Samuel L. Jackson cameo and an Ennio Morricone cue from the Man With No Name Trilogy in the first five minutes, you know it’s going to be good. What you don’t know, at this point, is that Vol. 2 is in same ways a world away from Vol. 1. This is not to say that the two parts do not cohere; they do, and quite brilliantly so, once the chapter structure falls into place and the jigsaw that is the Bride stands complete. But Vol. 2 has nothing akin to the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, no visceral lessons on the many ways to dismember the human anatomy with an example a second; by my count, the body count remains in the single digits. For those of you keeping track, that’s a whole two digits less than Chapters 1 to 5, never mind how it’s stated at one point that there aren’t actually eighty-eight Crazy 88s.

Instead, the second half of Kill Bill is progressively more literary in its writing. This is not in any way a cakewalk like Uma Thurman’s Bride – whose name is finally revealed – fighting her way up to and killing her remaining victims, Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (finally revealed onscreen as David Carradine). After plunging headfirst into Japanese cinema in the O-Ren chapters of Vol. 1, now we have a return to America’s Wild West, and even an all-too-brief stop in China. As with the first half, Tarantino treats his material with precise visual acuity true to the visual flair of his influences. By the end of it all, Kill Bill is like a film studies course in a box, taking the techniques of the great filmmaking dynasties from around the world and putting them in one four-hour package; all it’s missing is a Bollywood musical number on the streets of Delhi.

I cannot say enough about the China sequence – Chapter 8, “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei”. It stands as a towering tribute to classic Hong Kong cinema, with the same zoom-in, zoom-out photography and the beard-stroking of the legendary White-Eyebrowed Monk, Pai Mei – here portrayed by Gordon Liu, who also played Crazy 88s leader Johnny Mo in the first part. His scenes miss nothing. One of my recurring gripes about American films with brief forays in Hong Kong or China is the careless indifference to the gulf of separation between the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects, often resulting in inconsistent banter where you would see alternation between the two in the same conversation, banking on the fact that the audience won’t notice. Tarantino knows better; he even goes out of his way to mock this from the beginning – as an aside, with Pai Mei reminding this reviewer that he still understands Cantonese in the context of martial arts movies. In this chapter in particular, we see a display of something Tarantino executes remarkably well: a balanced juxtaposition of scenes goofy and serious.

Budd and Elle Driver are valuable additions to the Tarantino canon, and complement well the half of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad we have already seen. Budd, like Vernita Green, left his past behind to start anew, only he is anything but well-adjusted to being a Texas bar bouncer who lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. In seeing his wreck of a life, one observes an important parallel with what is revealed about the Bride’s own path in life. Elle, on the other hand, followed O-Ren’s path in that she never gave up being a Deadly Viper, and she is every bit the same assassin as in her brief appearance in Chapter 2: someone who wears an eyepatch, carries a cell phone, is never content with settling with second place, and resorts to the most vile techniques to express her dissatisfaction. In many ways, she is perhaps the most villainous character in the saga.

Kill Bill is one film, with its separation in two an afterthought of release strategy, and it never lets the audience forget that. Neither part stands alone, and the most impressive thing about the work is just how well the two parts fit together. The second part, however, distinguishes itself right off the bat; no longer is the Bride’s name concealed by a censoring beep, and no longer is Bill a faceless entity. Both of them drop their anonymity over the course of Vol. 2 and blossom to completion as two of the deepest original characters in recent cinema. What we see most of in this movie are revelations of motive through character interaction in a way that takes the chaos of the “roaring rampage of revenge” and sets it in order.

But when it comes to motive, most revenge films – even the good ones – stop right there. Kill Bill goes beyond. It dares to pose the question of why the perpetrator and counter-perpetrating victim resort to violence, and what it is in the nature of these individuals, or human nature itself, that drives them to commit their actions. The film realizes that as far as full-on action spectacles go, it already reached an asymptotal limit at the House of Blue Leaves in Chapter 5, and takes a different developmental path that favours depth over death. As it works its way towards a grand finale that may not be a spectacular boss battle, but is anything but anti-climactic, it shows a progressive level of maturity. To boot, this maturity never precludes it from being outright fun.

Does Kill Bill, Vol. 2 have flaws? On a trivial, “nobody’s perfect” level, arguably. An encounter with a Mexican pimp (Michael Parks) near the end comes a little late, and could be construed as an aberrant drop in the pace. With the amount of screen time devoted to Budd and Elle in this volume and O-Ren in the first, of the Deadly Vipers, Vernita Green is shafted in terms of development – though some balance is restored given that her brief appearance in Chapter 1 has a symbolic value that is made ever more evident in the second half, when we find out more about the Bride herself. As far as Budd goes, a lot of his fractured relationship with his brother Bill is left ambiguous, but the tensions there make enough sense to avoid being too unsatisfying. By itself, Vol. 2 seems as light on action as the first seemed light on Tarantino’s trademark soliloquies, but again, the two have to be regarded as a unified product.

These reservations can be put aside in the face of what Quentin Tarantino has achieved with his project, an attempt to create the ultimate cult film, and one that could be dubbed successful. Kill Bill, when considered in its entirety, is the quintessential movie for people who love movies.

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