Kill Bill: Vol. 2 begins just prior to where it ends, then goes to the beginning of the whole story, and then picks up just a bit past where the first volume began. That might sound confusing, but it’s really not. While The Bride (Uma Thurman) drives to Bill with the intent to kill him, she very quickly recounts the events of the first film. So quickly, in fact, that Vol. 2 could function perfectly fine on its own. The important backstory—that The Bride is the sole survivor of a wedding day (rehearsal, technically) massacre that took her husband, friends, and her baby (or so she believes; Vol 1 informs us at the end that her child is actually alive) is finally shown to us this time, and somewhat surprisingly, the actual massacre is shown off-screen. Quentin Tarantino has not shied away from showing violence and gore since Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene, but here, he makes a rare exception. It’s a largely appropriate one, as Vol. 2 is far less action-packed than its predecessor. This time, even the fight scenes are quick and somewhat anti-climactic. Instead, he returns to the familial theme that formed the heart of Jackie Brown and probes the psychological depth of his characters more than he has in any film aside from that one. Considering that this is essentially a Hong Kong Martial Arts/Spaghetti Western homage in the form of an exploitation film, that’s pretty impressive.
Most everyone we meet is part of a family, or at least wants to be. Bill (David Carradine) is introduced as The Bride’s father, and Budd (Michael Madsen), The Bride’s first target, is Bill’s younger brother. There are also implications that Elle (Daryl Hannah, the eye-patch wearing member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad we briefly met in Vol. 1) despises The Bride because of her relationship with Bill, who was The Bride’s lover and is perhaps the father of her child. The Bride’s name is also revealed, and the bleeping out of it used both here and in Vol. 1 comes to fruition, as we learn that she left her life as a DVAS when she discovered she was pregnant. The multitude of names she goes by (five) emphasize the aspects of family and identity that rise to the surface as the film’s mythology builds, and unlike the Star Trek references in Vol. 1 or the Martial Arts flashback in this one, a reference to Superman is a superb analogy that both satisfies Tarantino’s tendencies to wink at the audience and complicates what we see on screen. Is The Bride a killer at heart, or can she shed that identity? Is she Superman (a born superhero who impersonates a common man) or a different superhero (an everyman who comes into superpowers)? It can be a bit rough getting there, as the aforementioned flashback is overlong and not terribly well done in the first place (and if not for the loving intentions of homage, arguably racist). It provides Chekhov’s obligatory gun, but in a film that is otherwise devoid of extraneous detail and makes even the most gratuitous homages and conversations relevant, it’s decidedly excessive. Almost as bad is a side-trip to a Mexican brothel that is more painful to watch but gives crucial insight to Bill as a father and makes the final scene far more powerful, even creating sympathy for the bad guys. That’s not easy to do in a revenge film.
The lack of callbacks to Vol. 1 is frustrating. What happened to the kill list, the other Vipers, and Sophie? At the same time, emphasizing the sprawling nature of the narrative might not have been the best idea either. As it stands, the lopsidedness is actually quite effective; it’s hard to complain that Vol. 1 is an action film while Vol. 2 is a character film given how well this one stands on its own. Whichever way you look at it, though, Vol. 2 is the better film. It may not have the beautiful choreography or a virtuoso tracking shot, but as a whole, the direction is almost as good (a few too many close-ups of Thurman’s feet hold it back), the performances are better, the narrative is denser, and the characters are fuller. It’s hard to believe that Tarantino was able to explore concepts such as family and identity so well while having as much fun as he is, but somehow he pulls it off. Thematically, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is second only to Jackie Brown in his oeuvre. Of course, Tarantino has always been more about postmodern storytelling and memorable characters than about thematic depth, but this is no exception and he succeeds on those levels, too. Take a minute to think about the chronology of this epic, and then consider how appropriately the flashbacks are slipped in. When The Bride is spending hours trying to rejuvenate her legs, we get to learn what her next move will be. When she is buried alive in a costume, we recall along with her the skills that will let her break out. There are a couple cheats, but not too many, and considering how much the scope widens here, that’s quite impressive.
NOTE: My review of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is available here.