Kill Bill Vol. 2
Quentin Tarantino has seen possibly every movie ever made and never forgotten a scene. When he needs a reference for a shot or a look or a line to use in one of his own films, something pops up from that vast library inside his brain, ready to be transmuted into the perfect moment on screen. Don't think this means he's just a pastiche artist. He's one of the great original filmmakers of our time, and his best work - the screenplay for "True Romance," the complete films "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown," and now "Kill Bill (Vols. 1 and 2)" are if not masterpieces at least enduringly brilliant.
"Vol. 2" begins with the wedding in 'the little chapel in El Paso, Texas' that started off the first volume. But now that we know what happened that day, we wait to see the payoff; it's the first time we meet Bill (David Carradine) and glimpse his relationship to Uma Thurman, who is known in the film as, successively, the Bride, Black Mamba, and Beatrix Kiddo. And each of those names has its own reference and resonance for the film. The film moves forward and back, with flashbacks within flashbacks that take us through her encounters with the two remaining members of Bill's killer-group - Michael Madsen as, yes, Bill's brother Budd; and Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver. Madsen, the most underused character actor in the business today, is simply magnificent as a man hanging on in the desert to something he's not quite sure is worth keeping. Tarantino has deliberately given him lines that in other hands would be embarrassingly clichéd; Madsen takes them and gives them believability and power. It's a great performance that deserves notice when this year's awards are given out. And Hannah, wearing an eyepatch (and we learn how that happened), plays her part with wit and irony; she is also a martial arts master.
Early in the film we are taken back to Beatrix's apprenticeship in the martial arts, under the tutelage of Pei Mai (Gordon Liu), so we see how and where she acquired her skills. It is a painful episode that deliciously foreshadows the carnage that will come later. She still has the famous sword from Vol. 1, but it is more a symbol here than a useful weapon.
Tarantino has always had a killer instinct for casting; who would have thought that Uma Thurman and David Carradine would make the great screen couple that they do here? They are equals, both as lovers and opponents, and we cannot take our eyes off of either of them. Carradine, with his deep, relaxed voice and ironic self-awareness, gives the performance of his career. His weathered face has seen everything and done everything; he is both evil and unbearably attractive at the same time. And who would have thought that Uma Thurman could carry four and a half hours of screen time in a film that's filled with murder and horrors, and yet convey the sweetness underneath everything she does? She does it with a relaxed understanding that-without ever breaking character - it is a movie, after all.
Tarantino has culled every trope, every action style from Sergio Leone to Japanese sword epics to Hong Kong martial-arts films to comic books (Carradine does an extended riff on the personas that superheroes must put on in order to pass in the real world). He knows that his actors can treat every reference as though it was original to this film, and they honor him with their performances. His cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has shot for Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and John Sayles, among others, has used light - shafts, shadows, colors, even dust motes - in a way that takes his work in Vol 1 to a new and higher level. He and Tarantino are delighted to use lingering closeups on his people's faces, closeups that in other hands would seem dull and overlong. Here they are essential for us in the audience to study what makes the people on screen tick. And tick they do, like a series of time bombs that might go off at any moment. "Kill Bill Vol. 2" is a thrill and a delight from beginning to end. The holy monster Tarantino has delivered the goods.