Kill Bill: From Flesh to Spirit
By Fernando F. Croce

"It's cinema pushed to its borders -- those who reject it altogether, it can be safely assumed, have no place in the movie house." And with that casual bit of nuclear hyperbole I ended my review of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 last year, as well as my chances of being taken seriously as a critic. Not really, of course, but the fact that I happened to consider Quentin Tarantino's whirling, blood-geysering movie buff's wet dream a major work of art furnished friend and foe alike with plenty of derisive ammunition. Such predictable punditry -- the logic went, "Sure it's fun, but Art? Senility settling in a little early, ain't it buddy?"

Well, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has finally hit theaters, and it graciously validates even my foamiest, sub-Cahiers du Cinéma rhetoric. It is a masterpiece. More than that, now that the project can be regarded as a whole and its methods can be fully grasped, the two halves, when at last fused together, will emerge as one of the decade's most exultant cinematic achievements. The results, in terms of stylistic audacity, thematic complexity and sheer visionary intensity, bring to mind not so much the juvenile mythology of the Lord of the Rings movies as the truly epic power of Fritz Lang's monumental, two-part silent classic Die Nibelungen (1924).

When last seen, The Bride (Uma Thurman) had just leveled an entire brigade of Japanese masked warriors, as part of her seething search for the treacherous Bill (David Carradine), whose wedding chapel massacre left her for dead at the beginning of the saga. Vol. 2 jettisons the avenger (at last baptized as Beatrix Kiddo) from the glitzy neon landscapes of Tokyo to the vast deserts of Texas and lush Mexican backwaters, where showdowns with Budd (Michael Madsen), Bill's bloated but cunning brother, and deadly hit-woman Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) await her before the final rendezvous with Bill.

The first half of Kill Bill was an action fever dream, with moments of disproportionate intensity as gleeful as anything in the canons of Michael Powell or Brian De Palma. Vol. 2, on the other hand, plays soaring spirit to the first's throbbing flesh -- the tempo, which earlier had the delirious forward-push of an opium high, slows down as the tone modulates from the giddy to the somber. That is not to say that Vol. 1 is without gravity while Vol. 2 lacks adrenaline, but the shift in mood is so marked that it is at first hard to believe that a break between the two halves was not the original strategy, rather than Harvey Weinstein's way of dipping into audiences' wallets twice for the same film. While kinetic action ran through the veins of Vol. 1, ready to explode at the slightest disbalance, the violence in Vol. 2 (a shotgun blast to the chest, a surprise snake attack) is fewer, brisker and farther apart. Viewers who loved the first movie simply for the heady violence (really but a small slice of an extraordinarily rich and complex film) and walk in craving more will fidget through a series of plot-delaying devices and leisurely bull sessions. For instance, the carnage that sets the narrative afoot (the aftermath of which we got a glimpse in Vol. 1) is left to the imagination here, with the camera tracking back and then craning away just as all hell is about to break loose.

The amazing thing is that the pictures, so contrasting yet so intrinsically woven, do not cancel each other out -- instead, each half continually leaks into and enriches the other, and the staggering scope of the project as a whole comes to the fore. Motifs and themes clash and rhyme throughout. The Bride's apprenticeship with an old blade master (Sonny Chiba) in Vol. 1 is contrasted with her grueling tutelage under the ancient martial arts guru Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) in Vol. 2, just as the graceful, dancelike movements of her duel with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) here morph into a raucous, knockdown, drag-out rumble with Elle within the cramped spaces of a trailer home. These changes are integral to the film's progression and, more to the point, to Tarantino's overall strategy. His films, from Reservoir Dogs on down, have been essays on the ideology and mechanics of movies that, beneath their candy-colored patina, can be as multi-layered as Jean-Luc Godard's far more august ruminations. This zest for cinema that one finds in every frame of his work can be so dazzling as to blind the eye to the questioning mind analyzing its cultural implications -- Tarantino in Kill Bill raises the characters to a level of mythical movie lore before twisting them to reveal flesh and blood.

One of the most frequently misunderstood aspects of Tarantino is his cinephilia, his so-called "post-modernism," a thrown-about term which to many people simply boils down to a wise-ass wink to other movies. His concept of cinema (with no barriers between art and entertainment) as an integral part of world culture is bracing, but it is never merely celebratory. Like such keen cultural satirists as Frank Tashlin or Joe Dante, Tarantino is very much aware of the pitfalls of pop debris -- he understands how it can bring people together as much as trap them in preconceived molds. There is a sense in which the people in his films are aware of their roles as "movie characters" (as tough guys, as icy hit men, as unstoppable avengers) because they must follow pre-established cultural notions. It is only fitting that these concepts so often manifest themselves in undisguised movie tropes: in rear projection, in radical changes of style, in bald references to everything from John Ford to kung-fu potboilers. The seams are supposed to show, the references are supposed to be intrusive -- the viewer must always be aware of the plot as a "movie," with all the implications that its images carry. The conventions of cinema that the characters carry often stifle them, like the costumes and jewelry that weight down pliant human tissue in Douglas Sirk's melodramas or Roberto Rossellini's historical reconstructions.

All of Tarantino's films move toward moments of epiphanic breakdown where the characters' bottled-up emotions spring out of their genre armors, whether by finding God or through the possibility of love. The trajectory of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 takes as its shape the humanization of The Bride, a character defined exclusively in terms of death and killing (as she must initially be, charting the rules of the revenge genre). As the movie progresses, she shifts from female Terminator to a scared, vulnerable human being, her Hattori sword no longer guaranteeing victory in an increasingly emotional battleground. In fact, all of the characters who originally came off as stock types are allowed unexpected depth and dignity -- Bill and Budd have a lovely scene together full of intimations of guilt and family troubles, and even statuesque, bushwhacking Elle is given a kind of offhand honor in recognizing her rival's stature as a warrior.

Tarantino's choice and use of actors add to the richness of the film. David Carradine, long forgotten since the '70s, emerges here with a mythical aura, his face gone craggy (and Tarantino's camera values every wrinkle) yet still radiating danger, a weathered sensuality and an ineffable dignity. The director loves to give actors arias to sing in -- Hannah and Madsen are superb, and Gordon Liu (a staple of old-school martial-arts extravaganzas) cuts quite a figure as Pai Mei, half sage and half trash-talking coach. Michael Parks, the kind of never-made-it performer born for a movie-buff director, has a juicy bit as a tanned, white-suited aged pimp with reservoirs of Old World gallantry and silky depravity. Ultimately, however, the film could have been titled And God Created Uma. Not since the 1930s, when Josef Von Sternberg's lenses searched for the mysteries of the universe in the features of Marlene Dietrich, has a director so exalted his leading lady. When facing certain death in an unforgettable buried-alive passage, the camera crafts a glowing close-up of Thurman just as she's ready to break through her casket. As she races magically to the surface, Tarantino raises her to goddess status right before bringing her down to the earth of blood and dirt -- it's an enchanting moment, worthy of a Cocteau fairytale. Hers isn't a facile, shrewdly image-retooling performance, like Julia Roberts' in Erin Brockovich or Charlize Theron's in Monster. Thurman is, in one word, sublime.

Much of the accumulative power of the film comes from the fact that, despite his deconstructionist bent, Tarantino is an inordinately warm-blooded filmmaker, and the emotions underneath the cool surface are raw and vibrant. After building up expectations for the final meeting with Bill as the showdown to end all showdowns, he completely pulls the rug from under the viewer and unleashes instead a barrage of unrushed monologues, suppressed feelings, longing motherhood, and a climactic moment of literal heartbreak. It is then that Beatrix comes to face herself -- as a woman, lover, mother -- and the avenger-role layers are gradually stripped away to reveal the full person underneath. I can think of no moment in films so far this year that has moved me as deeply as the shot of The Bride sprawled on the hard tiled floor of a motel bathroom, simultaneously crying and laughing as her newfound daughter watches cartoons in the other room. A reversal of the battered, black-and-white close-up of the character that opens the film, only now in glorious color and with the blood replaced by laughter and tears, joy and freedom: a purifying, awe-inspiring conclusion to a great director's ode to cinema, life, and cinema-as-life. And pundits be damned -- I say Kill Bill is a movie for the ages.

Originally published in two parts in The Spartan Daily on May 4 and May 6, 2004.

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