It’s important to acknowledge that Kill Bill Vol. 2 has been made in very much the same spirit as Vol. 1. Sure, there’s much less bloodshed, fewer fights, and slower pacing, but what we see on the screen is, once again, a pastiche of Tarantino’s favorite exploitation movie genreskung fu, spaghetti westerns, bad-ass chick flicks, B-horror pictures, grindhouse cinema of practically any variety. He himself has likened the Kill Bill series to Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas plumbed the annals of 30’s/40’s adventure serials and threw all their favorite moments and touches into a sort of reappraisal of the genre. This sort of aspiration applies equally to both Kill Bill films, and it would be foolhardy to try to find any new motive in the second installment. Vol. 2 is not, strictly speaking, any more mature than its predecessor, though there may be more dialogue and less action. Granted, “mature” is a problematic term, but let’s tentatively say it refers to a certain sense of confidence on the filmmaker’s part that does not manifest itself in showy exuberance or tugging at the sleeves of the audience, but rather in subtlety, or grace and legerdemain. That definition may be a mouthful, but it’s immediately clear that such a sensibility is not easy to find in Vol. 2. If anything, Tarantino’s latest is even more of a homage-driven narrative than was Vol. 1. At least the first film had a unified thematic and stylistic streak, in that the entire picture (with the exception of the opening black-and-white images of Uma Thurman’s The Bride, bloody and prostrate) emulated a cartoon. Now, Tarantino uses black-and-white footage extensively, developing it into alternately a spin-off of Sergio Leone westerns (as in the scenes in the wedding chapel) or, more strangely, an ode to film noir (as in the shots of The Bride driving and the opening art deco credits).
At the same time, “homage” to kung fu pictures virtually gives way to recreation in the chapter involving Pai Mei’s tutelage of The Bride. Those scenes have a grainy look and a muted palette, as if they belonged to the era of 70’s Hong Kong action pictures; to ram the point home even further, dramatic zooms are frequently used and, of course, Pai Mei’s character could have been plucked straight out of an old kung fu TV series. What Tarantino seems to be doing here is less reapplying and reinventing those parts of movies and shows that he loved best, and more aiming toward a systematic approximation and reproduction of exactly those movies and shows. Whereas Kill Bill Vol. 1 maintained a certain stylistic coherence, Vol. 2 shifts gears dramatically from one type of ode to another. The first big surprise of the picture comes with the credits I referred to earlier, designed to emulate 40’s/50’s noir. Right from the beginning, it is clear that Tarantino has extended himself past the realm of exploitation and cartoons. He is broadening the scope of his collage, but without any significant deepening or strengthening of the narrative.
Granted, surprises such as these do make for a thoroughly enjoyable picture. While the dazzling but incessant swordplay of the first movie grew somewhat tiresome by the end of two hours, Tarantino exhibits enough variety and flare in his latest offering to keep his audience hooked for an even longer span of time. The only worrisome feature is that he seems to have retreated into an increasingly dramatic reliance on homage and filmic intertextuality, rather than proceeding in the direction we might have hoped given Vol. 1: simply telling a good story. There’s a visceral brilliance in all of his movies, I would argue, and there’s never any doubt, watching Kill Bill, that you’re in the hands of a great talent. But brilliance is not exactly maturity. Maybe I’m nitpicking; I must confess that personally I love the Kill Bill series, perhaps simply because it represents such a unique approach to moviemaking. The completed work stands as more of a grand canvas pasted with marginally related ideas and momentsas with anything Tarantino does, it is uncontrollably bursting with ideasthan a self-contained entity. A friend recently told me that Kill Bill was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for our generation, and, though that may sound excessively celebratory to some, I do think there’s something to be said for the way in which Tarantino has turned an inherently comic method of allusion and homage into an impassioned, rousing, and exhilarating action picture. Let’s not forget that Leone’s classic western was panned by numerous prominent critics upon its release. Perhaps the real qualities of Kill Bill will only emerge a decade or so down the line, in hindsight. For now, it is difficult to determine whether the series is a retreat into film-school antics or a bold and audacious statement on how movies are made. There’s a kind of genius at play in the two films (especially Vol. 2, which, though at times overreaching in search of inspiration, does have a lot more going on in it than the first), but also something inherently problematic about their approach, their very raison-d’être. Maybe it all boils down to a purely philosophical argument: whether one can create purely out of adoration for another creation; whether pastiche can be art, or at least a viable reflection on art, if only in a post-modernist way. Or, simply, whether you can make a kick-ass action movie in 2004 with art deco titles.