Kill Bill Volume 2 (18)

Driven to destruction
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The Independent Culture

First, a confession: faced with the ketchup chaos of Kill Bill Vol 1, I experienced an adrenalin rush of boredom and decided to skip it. This was prompted by a revelation - that I'd never actually liked a whole Tarantino movie, not even close. Reservoir Dogs: stagy and grandiose. Pulp Fiction: patchy. Ditto Jackie Brown. Worst of all, with the latter, was its self-proclaimed "maturity". Like a Rachel Whiteread building, the film's surface paraded depth; its dense core, though, was entirely blank. Why rush for QT's comeback, when the little twit had never really arrived?

First, a confession: faced with the ketchup chaos of Kill Bill Vol 1, I experienced an adrenalin rush of boredom and decided to skip it. This was prompted by a revelation - that I'd never actually liked a whole Tarantino movie, not even close. Reservoir Dogs: stagy and grandiose. Pulp Fiction: patchy. Ditto Jackie Brown. Worst of all, with the latter, was its self-proclaimed "maturity". Like a Rachel Whiteread building, the film's surface paraded depth; its dense core, though, was entirely blank. Why rush for QT's comeback, when the little twit had never really arrived?

Sitting down to watch Vol 2, of course, I merely cursed my lazy bones. Given my inability to track down Vol 1 (unavailable on video, at that point, except from dodgy Tooting market stalls), 105 minutes of utter confusion seem guaranteed. But lo! The film makes wonderful sense on its own. In fact, (having now seen Vol 1) I'd actually recommend watching the double act this way. For starters, it spares you the spoiler that comes at the end of the first instalment. More important, it suits the flash-back-to-the-future narrative style. Forging ahead has never been Tarantino's thang ( Pulp Fiction famously retraces its steps; Jackie Brown replays its heist). This time the gimmick works - with a vengeance. Chattily cruel, ecstatically gentle, Vol 2 creates an off-centre world you don't want to leave, and thus puts you in the perfect mood for wham-bam Vol 1. Hors d'oeuvres as afters? To quote the swordmaster Hattori Hanzo: "Revenge is never a straight line..."

The first 10 minutes of Kill Bill Vol 2 effortlessly (and explosively) set the scene. In dime-store prose voice-over, our heroine Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) explains the slight hitch experienced on her wedding-day dress rehearsal - a hitch best conveyed by this segment's title: "Massacre at Five Pines". Once a top assassin, the now pregnant Beatrix wants to settle down with a nice man, in a nice record shop, so she can bring up her baby girl in peace. Bill (David Carradine), her erstwhile lover and mentor, has other ideas. Four years and one hell of a coma later, she's got a Hattori Hanzo sword and wants to use it - not just on Bill, but on the cronies who helped him wreck her dreams. Two of them have already been scratched off the list (Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii and Vivica A Fox's Vernita Green). That leaves Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). Oh yes, and Bill's brother, Budd (Michael Madsen) - currently based in a trashy trailer in the flush-pink desert.

The next half hour - while it is lent a kind of moisture by Madsen's on-the-slide cowboy charm - provides Vol 2's one arid patch. Among other things, a flashback reveals Bea's torturous training at the hands of the Chinese guru Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a fellow who is given to tossing his droopy white moustache - an in-joke for fans of the Shaw Brothers' kung fu oeuvre that ain't funny the first time, or the second, or the third...

More troubling is the obsession with Beatrix's spirit-breaking regime. Once upon a time, hectoring instructors were portrayed as sadistic monsters (see Full Metal Jacket). Now - especially when ethnic - they are seen as firm but fair: top dogs, willing to take on young pups... All the self-conscious laughter in the world can't hide the fact that such a pecking order, macho by its very nature, reduces women to second-best. The Angels have Charlie. Beatrix, it seems, owes everything to Pai Mei - who is voiced, rather conveniently, by Grand Master Tarantino himself.

But then Elle Driver arrives and things, quite gloriously, fall apart; one killing tumbling into another, each more surprising and surreal than the last. Phew! The pecking order lies in ruins, because as in the scissor-paper-stone game, no one fighter - no one gender, no one race - can see every catastrophe coming. It barely matters that Vol 2, with its rawhide-opera aesthetic, looks and sounds like a lot of other movies (not just the cult hits Tarantino so noisily worships, but popular successes such as 1990's Wild at Heart, the David Lynch psychodrama that made film-homage hip). Something about the mood of Kill Bill feels utterly fresh.

At its heart, this is the unlikeliest love story you'll see all year. As Beatrix pushes closer to her quarry, you can't tell whether she's going to murder Bill or marry him - a confusion that makes complete sense once you've been exposed to Carradine's on-the-money croon. Both father figure for Beatrix and father to her daughter, Bill comes over like a leaner version of Chinatown's satanic Noah Cross - suffocatingly oppressive, but seductive, too. The one thing he couldn't predict? That motherhood would make Beatrix more ruthless, not less...

And so to Uma. Hard to think of another blonde goddess (Jodie Foster aside) who could convey the life-changing effect of pregnancy without seeming just a little sugar-sweet. Hard to think of one so willing to strip off her glamorous mask for the camera. In these final scenes she looks beautiful; impossibly young; used-up; Linda McCartney-like; and even, most spookily of all, Tarantino-plain, her nose and cheekbones revealed as big, wide and cudgel-heavy.

From every angle, though, it's her character's interior life that demands attention. We're used to the fantasy of being a leggy babe, and/or getting such a creature into bed. What Thurman delivers here is a fantasy about motherhood - specifically the mothering of a daughter - that's both healthy and hysterical. A fantasy, in other words, that rings true.

OK, so it's possible to identify a smidgen of male wish-fulfilment in this finale. Bill dismisses Beatrix's gentle fiancé as a "jerk", and forces her to admit that their life together would have been dull. If you swap Beatrix for Uma, and the fiancé for Quakerish Ethan Hawke, Kill Bill plays like Tarantino's revenge on the couple's marriage. Post-massacre, Beatrix gives up on coupledom. Post- Kill Bill, the lovely Uma is single once more. It's perhaps more useful to remember, though, that the character of "The Bride" was a collaboration - the result of a series of discussions between Tarantino and his muse.

There's a moment, towards the end of Kill Bill Vol 2 where a toy gun is waved by a child, and our hearts lurch at the thought that it might contain real bullets. Which just about sums up this project. No two ways about it, Tarantino is a brat who enjoys showing off his possessions. Up till now, though, he's also been the sort of kid who screams: "Don't touch!" as soon as excited fingers get close. On Kill Bill Vol 2, finally, he seems ready to share, to let in a few foreign germs.

Thank Tarantino for giving Uma a decent part. Thank Uma for the fact that Tarantino has made a film that's suspenseful right through to the end. This big kid has been shooting his mouth off for years. For the first time ever, he's hit us where it hurts.

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