In Volume 2 of Kill Bill, the title character (David Carradine) remarks, "You know I’m all about old-school." The same could be said for Quentin Tarantino, but which school? In this film, kung fu movies, samurai dramas and Japanese cartoons all get to bask in the sunny glow of Tarantino’s homage, alongside the Kung Fu TV series and Sergio Leone’s westerns. Tarantino works hard to give generous screen time to each of his favorite sources of inspiration, perhaps taking his cue from an Asian pulp author named Mao Zedong, who said to "let a thousand beautiful flowers bloom." The writer/director’s reluctance to discriminate among styles proves a drawback—decades of tributes, rip-offs and parodies have emptied spaghetti westerns of their value as pastiche material, and while the same isn’t true for anime, that’s still no reason to have it in the movie. Even so, Kill Bill (the combined two volumes) is one of the best films of recent years.
In Volume 2, the Bride (Uma Thurman) continues her revenge mission against Bill and her other former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), seeking payback for their violent objection to her wedding. Thurman is equal to the film’s many physical challenges and she makes the Bride a believable killing machine—or as believable as necessary in a film that self-consciously inhabits a physics-defying movie universe. She also makes the most of the scenes where the Bride is thwarted; her skillful depictions of anguish humanize the character and bring the audience into her struggle, just in time for her savage counterattacks.
In a film like this one, the references also take on a starring role, and while Kill Bill’s tired wild-west homages clang loudly, they never manage to slow the momentum. Tarantino’s fascination with kung fu films pays off better than his other cinematic passions because those movies offer more variety than other action genres. There are only so many ways you can shoot someone, but kung fu flicks have a wealth of weapons and hand-to-hand combat moves, not to mention exotic tricks like "the nine strikes" and "the cosmic palm." Tarantino exploits the genre’s advantages in sequences that dazzle in their own right, but have an extra pop for Hong Kong film fans.
In Volume 1, when the Bride took on O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and her army of bodyguards, the scene contained many sly tributes to Blood of the Dragon and The Master of the Flying Guillotine, two classics featuring the under-appreciated Jimmy Wang Yu. But the set piece also worked because of its sharp choreography and the arresting, bloody tableau it created in the spacious nightclub. Likewise, in Volume 2, Gordon Liu excels as Bill’s master in a flashback showing the Bride’s training. Liu achieves nice interaction with Thurman while bits of kung fu esoterica mix with the funk soundtrack.
Volume 2 upends expectations in humorous ways, but it also offers more of what audiences anticipate from a Tarantino movie. There are weird verbal tangents and monologues that extract meaning from unpromising-looking slabs of pop culture. Also, the film’s interjection of elements of domestic life into the violent realm occupied by the characters makes for comedy on the order of some of the best scenes in Pulp Fiction. Perhaps the funniest moment in Kill Bill is a flashback in whichThurman’s characterhas to deal with the demands of her job right after finding out that she’s pregnant. Tarantino went for a similar effect in Volume 1’s Pasadena living room battle, but the colliding worlds make a more impressive crash in this installment.
Thurman will rightly win a lot of praise for her performance, but it’s Carradine who runs away with the movie. Bill is the answer to critics who say that Tarantino is merely a clever arranger of film references. The gang boss is in part an evil Kwai Chang Caine (Carradine’s character in Kung Fu), offering deep-sounding Chinese parables with psychopathic twists, in between the soothing tunes of Caine’s trademark wooden flute. Bill is also a philosophizing thug to rival any of Tarantino’s earlier creations and his discussions of his feelings are among the most humorous and also unsettling parts of the movie. He has a memorable monologue on the difference between professional killers like himself and everyday people, by way of a comparison between comic-book heroes and their alter egos. "Clark Kent is Superman’s critique of the human race," he decides. Carradine perfectly conveys both Bill’s contempt for ordinary folks and his envy of their more placid lives. He’s a wonderfully complicated villain, and in Kill Bill, Tarantino gets as much out of his characters’ often absurd struggles with emotion as he does out of the martial arts battles.