Kill Bill Vol. 2: Diet Jolt with half the good stuff all around yet the same bitter taste

kill-bill-vol-2-posterCall me shallow.

For my generation the four food groups were caffeine, sugar, pot and Ritalin. I was brought up on Twinkies, punk rock and Kung-Fu Theatre, and wanted to be a bionic ninja like every other kid my age.

I accepted director Quentin Tarantino as a kindred soul, and his Kill Bill Vol. 1 was the finest example of the conquest of cool over content I can remember. It was a high-speed, take-no-prisoners, adrenalin-soaked ride through the trash culture of 1970s and ’80s that left me giggling for weeks.

Unfortunately, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a little too slow and too plot-driven to measure up to its predecessor. Call it Kill Bill lite – Diet Jolt with half the good stuff all around yet the same bitter taste.

Someone must’ve gotten to Tarantino, convinced him that the first film was too fast and furious for American audiences. Applying their own yardstick to the film, some critics whined that the first Kill Bill lacked, like, a compelling plot, believable characters, yada, yada, yada, as though films were justly critiqued using the same standards as an eighth-grade book report.

So T-Bone went back to his laboratory and churned out this film, which is not so much a novel recombination of the styles, codes and conventions of a cheesy martial arts film as a cheesy martial arts film itself. Is it a better film? Only if your idea of what a movie should be has hardened into formula where every ‘i’ needs to be dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, but if you’re this anal you probably wouldn’t enjoy a kung-fu film anyhow.

The second film takes up where the first left. In the first Kill Bill the Bride (Uma Thurman) had exacted revenge against two of the three gangsters who had left her for dead on the floor of an El Paso church. The three members of the gang that remain – Bill (David Carradine), Bud (Michael Madsen) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – now know that the Bride has awaked from her coma and is out for them. 
The plot is marginal, very straightforward, and, frankly, a nuisance. The first film was character-driven, using action as a linchpin, and provided actors the opportunity to put a toe over the line as a test of authority. Although he kept a straight face, it wasn’t difficult to see Tarantino was playing with his topic, affectionately toying with conventions. Here he reproduces stock characters to engage a rather conventional plotline, sacrificing fun for cohesion.

In this film we learn the details leading up to the Bride’s relationship with the mysterious Bill; are invited into the pathetic and depressing world of Bud, a one-time samurai assassin turned tobacco-chewing redneck bouncer; and return to earlier days, when the Bride was still just a budding killer training with the eccentric martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu Jia-hu).

What we really learn from these flashbacks and carefully stilted dialog is that these characters are truly as one-dimensional as we thought. Occasionally they are even less deep than we imagined. The Bride’s biologically driven motives, for example, leave me wishing she was just a good, old-fashioned natural born killer.

The flashbacks involving Pai Mei are a welcome diversion from the present-day, reality-bound portion of the film, providing the kind of goofy tribute to the genre that should be embedded throughout. Pai Mei is hilariously over the top, the sort of character instantly recognizable to the legions of geeks who, like me, decided to watch grainy Kung-Fu Theatre rather than Saturday Night Live in the ’70s and ’80s.

Carradine is a pleasure to watch in his old age and the rest of the crew does what it can with pretty skimpy characters. Madsen undoubtedly has the hardest chore, revealing a potentially interesting character as more or less a cliché. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but T-Bone has made Bud a central character, and Madsen has to carry nearly a third of the film on the back of this loser. It’s an unenviable position and we hope him a speedy recovery.

Tarantino is usually adept at weaving realistic (trite) dialog into his plots, but the language in Kill Bill Vol. 2 is stiff, wooden and mechanical. Even the words characters speak must somehow serve the supercilious plot, and rather than revealing some interesting psychological detail they just add another layer of superficiality to the film. The film’s conclusion is a textbook example of bad storytelling with characters reiterating the plot in case folks can’t understand how a kung-fu film is supposed to work out.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is less frantic and revolutionary than the first film. It has no large-scale battles, less humor and takes far fewer chances with its material. The rough edges have been sanded clean in the second film and the characters are fleshed out and developed, but what’s the point? Do we really need justification in a trashy kung-fu film? Why should we worship at the altar of traditional filmmaking? Who the heck needs a plot, anyhow?

In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Tarantino is like Picasso doing portrait paintings at a mall. All the details line up perfectly, but the picture just isn’t right anymore.


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