In a perfect world, we could have seen the second part of Tarantino’s warehouse o’ film references, Kill Bill first, so that when we saw the first volume, in all its loony outrageousness, we could have been pleasantly surprised. That’s not to say that “Volume Two” is entirely, or even mostly, without merit, merely that it’s a much more conventional film – Tarantino on auto-pilot.
Things start off promisingly, though. The opening is a full-length replay of what led up to the massacre of wedding party, shot in crystalline black and white, with the Bride (Uma Thurman) confronting her old boss Bill (David Carradine), who shows up unexpectedly outside the lonely Texas chapel. It’s a tense and crackling affair, ending with the Bride’s four former co-workers in Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) stalking into the chapel brandishing automatic rifles and opening fire as the camera discreetly swoops up and away.
The film shifts abruptly after that into the continuation of The Bride’s odyssey of revenge; having taken out two of the DiVAS in Volume One (O’Ren-Ishii, played by Lucy Liu, and Vernita Green, played ever so briefly by Vivica A. Fox), she’s got two others left before she gets to Bill himself, Budd (Michael Madsen) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). There’s a sharp tonal change here from the previous film, which served as Tarantino’s homage to Asian martial arts and samurai films, replete with old-fashioned, baroque, hand-and-sword, gravity-free fights, but “Volume Two” throws us into the desert, where The Bride’s fabled katana blade is met with the double barrels of Budd’s shotgun.
Tarantino’s attachment to his characters and their quirks can be endearing at times, but it also makes for a lot of dead screentime. Witness the endless scenes in which we get the full story on Budd’s life: retired from being a jet-setting assassin, he’s now a bouncer at a desolate strip club. It’s lazy backstory accented by lazy acting, adding nothing to the story, and the sooner Budd is dispatched the better. Much more intriguing is Driver, who’s overplayed to just the right note by Hannah. A sadistic spawn of Satan in a black eyepatch, Driver doesn’t need any backstory and thankfully none is provided – she and The Bride (whose real name is provided in this film finally, not that there was any good reason for withholding it in the first place) just kick the unholy hell out of each other in a trailer home.
“Volume Two” is just as spotty as Volume One, but even when it scores – such as in a hilarious flashback to The Bride’s training at the hands of the dread Shaolin master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) – it never achieves quite the same heights of lunacy that the first film did. This is also the film where Uma Thurman’s limitations as an actress become quite obvious. Volume One gave her a mask of rage and steely determination, but “Volume Two” requires her to emote, coming face to face with the child that she never knew she had, and that’s when Thurman’s inherent blankness becomes harder to mask. This is especially apparent in her many scenes with Bill, each of which are stolen quite effortlessly by Carradine. With his California Zen hipster cool, Carradine isn’t just the focus of The Bride’s revenge, he’s the film’s whole foundation, without him, “Volume Two” would collapse like a house of cards.
Tarantino is a comic-book auteur with pretensions; not always a bad thing. But when he shifts from the fizzy manga stylings of Volume One to the more serious, character-based scenery of “Volume Two” (almost as if moving back to the Western Hemisphere froze him up, magic can only happen in the East), the strain to replicate real human emotions is made very apparent.
In sum, “Volume Two” is what they call a movie-lover’s movie, in that it’s replete with references to just about everything a cinema geek would appreciate, but not in a way that would keep the masses from grooving along with it. There’s bloody revenge, eye-gouging, poisonous snakes, and a kung-fu move called “The Five-Point Exploding Heart Technique,” so in other words, a good time at the movies. But that feeling you get as it all winds down towards the surprisingly conventional ending? That’s the realization that “Volume One” had promised something us stranger, weirder, and better by the time The Bride finds Bill. Maybe if Tarantino hadn’t sprinted so hard early on, he wouldn’t have run out of gas right when it mattered.
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