Although you won't get many of us to admit it, Quentin Tarantino is a critic's nightmare. His movies are so artfully trashy that we don't know what to do with them, surrender or declare war. They're the ultimate guilty pleasure in a medium that, in some ways, seems founded on guilty pleasure. But separating the guilt from the pleasure is pure hell. Some critics don't even try. They either wholly accept or wholly reject Tarantino's cinematic universe. The rest of us roll up our sleeves and go to work, knowing fully well that, no matter how many words we throw at the thing, it won't be enough. This is what makes Tarantino the most fascinating director since Oliver Stone. We can neither deny the pleasure of watching his movies nor quite justify it.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is the long-awaited -- well, not that long-awaited -- follow-up to Kill Bill Vol. 1, which came out last October. Unable or unwilling to trim his epic revenge fantasy down to multiplex length, Tarantino sliced it in two. But, for better or worse (maybe both), the two halves don't quite fit. They're like identical twins who were separated at birth. The "story" of a professional hit woman who systematically eliminated the death squad that ruined her wedding plans, Kill Bill Vol. 1 famously/infamously spilled oceans of blood while treating us to a master class in action-traction filmmaking. Emotionally and intellectually, the movie seemed less than the sum of its parts, but who cared? The parts were like successive hits of cocaine.
There are yet more lines of coke to snort in Kill Bill Vol. 2, but they're surrounded, even overwhelmed, by what Tarantino supposedly does best: talk. Uma Thurman's Bride keeps scratching items off her to-do list, including Bill's brother Budd (Michael Madsen), a gone-to-seed cowboy with a couple of bullets left in his holster, and the one-eyed Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), who must have snake venom flowing through her veins, so poisonous is her kiss when she sinks her teeth into you. Both showdowns are memorable in an artfully trashy kind of way, but they're mere preludes, as the whole two-part movie has been, to a final showdown with Bill, whom David Carradine endows with equal parts warmth and menace. He's an affectionate psychopath.
Bill was strangely, yet powerfully, absent in Kill Bill Vol. 1, and if he never quite wears out his welcome in Kill Bill Vol. 2, he certainly makes up for lost time, delivering a lengthy lecture on Superman and Clark Kent that may not make it into the Royale with Cheese Hall of Fame. Tarantino gives Thurman and Carradine a number of scenes together, and they're masterpieces of indirect writing, the two characters assessing each other's position for signs of weakness, ready to sacrifice a pawn for a chance at a rook or a knight. And Kill Bill turns out to be a love story, albeit one that's slightly tarnished by what these folks do for a living. Pregnant, Thurman's Bride wanted out of the murder business, but Bill believes the family that slays together stays together.
Some have accused Tarantino of being a great talker who doesn't have much to say. Nonsense. Kill Bill contains a powerful message about mothers and daughters and the way that having a child can change your whole outlook on life, even if death is your occupational specialty. Still, I didn't see many women at the screening I attended. Out of a crowd of maybe 100 people, I counted two. And the guys were mostly alone or sitting "ROTC style," with an empty seat between them. It was like we were watching a porn flick or something. Despite his high-art credentials, tracing his po-mo lineage back to Jean-Luc Godard, Tarantino still has the sickly sweet smell of the grindhouse about him. Trash turns him on.
The thing is, he used to strike a better balance between art and trash. Yes, Vol. 2 balances out Vol. 1, providing the emotional underpinnings for all that bloody mayhem, but did we have to wait this long to get the emotional underpinnings? Tarantino has done wonderful things with time in the past; Pulp Fiction kept meeting itself coming the other way, slicing and splicing the narrative at the same time. But Kill Bill seems arbitrarily sliced and spliced, as if Tarantino were working through his own to-do list of kick-flick/chick-flick highlights, determined to keep topping himself, then suddenly decided to try something else altogether. Like a mix tape with all the slow songs on the B-side, Kill Bill doesn't really hold together. Then again, does it need to?
Not if Tarantino continually puts something in front of us that we want to see. Vol. 2 has its longueurs, but it also has scenes that are right up there with the best work Tarantino's ever done. There's a buried-alive sequence that, though not as creepy as what George Sluicer did with similar material in The Vanishing, makes wonderful use of sound, the shovels of dirt hitting the pine-box lid like an avalanche. And there's a kung fu training sequence that, although we've seen similar sequences many times before, has its own little wrinkles to add, not least the fact that the trainee is an American woman. Thurman has obviously worked her tail off bringing the Bride to cinematic life. She isn't the next Bruce Lee by any stretch of the imagination, but like the character she's playing, she more than gets the job done.
And so does Tarantino. He set out to make a movie that, cinematically speaking, kicked ass; and Kill Bill, if nothing else, kicks ass, lots and lots of ass. Actually, it does do something else, something important. It feminizes movie genres that have long been male bastions. Thurman's Bride has now fought her way through a blaxploitation film, a yakuza film, a chop-socky film and a spaghetti western. And if it's possible to imagine Tarantino having made even more out of her journey, so that the movie held together while only seeming to fly apart...well, at least she's still standing when everything's said and done. By that point, she's killed dozens upon dozens of people in her effort to stop killing people for a living. And we're still behind her, cheering her on. Ironic? Not to Tarantino: In his movie-fed imagination, we always kill the thing we love.