Viewers who swooned over its predecessor may be a tad disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s second installment in his epic gender-bending mixture of kung-fu movie and spaghetti western. “Kill Bill,” of course, was originally designed as a single movie, but when it appeared that it would run 3½ hours or more, distributor Miramax persuaded the writer-director to release it in two parts. The first half, which came out last year, was a series of spectacular action set-pieces set within the arc of a Sergio Leone-like vengeance narrative: a “woman with no name” systematically went after her old colleagues in an assassination squad after she’d attempted to resign and they responded by massacring her wedding party, leaving her for dead. After awakening from a long coma (and finishing off a scummy orderly who’d abused her during her incapacitation), she hunted down two of her former comrades–both women–and dispatched them in spectacular style. Three remained, however–Elle Driver, a one-eyed blonde (Daryl Hannah) and the two men, nefarious ringleader (and mentor) Bill (David Carradine) and his seedy brother Budd (Michael Madsen).
This second picture covers the woman’s encounters with this trio, as well as–in flashback–her training in martial arts under an ancient master named Pei Mei (Gordon Liu). But the style and approach are rather different from the first time around. After a beautifully managed, almost elegiac, elaboration of the El Paso massacre shown in the first film, in which Bill now appears for a long conversation with the bride prior to the slaughter, the narrative proceeds to her tracking down of Budd, who’s living in a desolate trailer and, humiliatingly, working as a bouncer in a local bar. But their confrontation doesn’t start off the action with a bang, as was the case in the first movie; instead it places her in much the same position of helplessness as her coma did in the earlier one, when Budd captures her and buries her alive. This predicament, which Tarantino certainly visualizes in an effectively claustrophobic way, occasions the flashback to her demanding training by the cheekily oppressive Pei Mei, which happily provides the means of her escape. But as it turns out, she needn’t deal with Budd, because he’s already been disposed of by the menacing Elle, whom she must then confront in a rousing fight in the confined space of his tiny trailer. Her revenge finally leads her, via a talk with a degenerate Mexican named Estaban (a heavily made-up Michael Parks, who also played the Texas sheriff in part one), to a curiously domesticated Bill, who has a secret of his own; and the film ends with their inevitable face-off.
It would be difficult to overstate the craft that Tarantino has lavished on “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” The whole is beautifully fashioned, and each of its episodes is visually arresting. But at the same time, with the exception of the melee between Elle and the heroine (which ends with a show-stopper involving Elle’s good eye) and a brief contretemps the heroine has with a female assassin in a hotel, they don’t carry the excitement of the battles in part one. Indeed, most of this picture is talky and very slow-moving, and the fact that some of the talk has Tarantino’s customary popular-culture edge and a good deal of the deliberation takes on an almost hypnotic power, overall it may prove a letdown for those expecting the energy and deft takeoff-homage character of the previous one. Viewers are likely to feel especially dissatisfied with the final confrontation between Beatrix Kiddo–as her name is eventually revealed–and Bill, which is drenched in bathetic maternal feelings that one hopes are intended as a joke but probably aren’t, involves yet another incapacitation that leaves the heroine temporarily unable to move, and concludes surprisingly abruptly, with another reference back to the Pei Mei episode after some surprisingly brief swordplay. There’s a good deal of compensation, however, in that flashback itself, in which Liu has a field day mimicking the figure of the wizened, white-bearded master that appears in so many kung-fu flicks (his voice is provided by Tarantino himself); in the combination of seedy brutality and menace that Madsen brings to Budd; and in Carradine’s canny reversal of his “Kung Fu” persona as the quietly evil, smooth-talking Bill. (By contrast, Hannah comes across as a mite dull.)
Of course, what “Kill Bill Vol. 2” is, primarily, is an exercise in style, like its predecessor. And in that respect it’s not quite up to the earlier film. Tarantino makes that all too clear in the closing credits, where he reintroduces the characters from both parts, in the process reminding us that the initial volume offered a greater variety of engaging antagonists and far more spectacular set-pieces, in a much shorter time span, than this two hour-plus picture does. It might not have originally be intended as a separate film, but “Kill Bill Vol. 2” suffers the fate of most sequels in not matching the original. Still, it has just enough going for it to get by.