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Back into the pit of vipers

by Mark Thompson

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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True originality is a many-splintered thing. Let us recall that Shakespeare was indebted to Marlowe, Picasso drew inspiration from African totems and Van Gogh dug ukiyoe prints. Then this thing called postmodernism gave artists carte blanche to quote, sample, appropriate, reinterpret — you name it, the pomo crowd nicked it, and pop culture ate itself.

We could easily call director Quentin Tarantino a mixmaster of postmodern cinema, the kind of geek who scours secondhand shops in search of overlooked gems. He’s not only a collector of the obscure and the classic, he wants to share them with a wider audience, by any means necessary. When he spins his platters, he wants the approval of the other geeks in the corner, but ultimately he’s playing to the crowd, so the trick is get it all in the mix. With “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” he rarely loses the beat.

Case in point: For the backing track of the climactic scene of “Vol. 2,” DJ Tarantino chose a “mash-up” instead of just an oldie. A mash-up is just that: one incongruous track mashed into another. Skilled practitioners of this cheeky bastard pop can make Britney Spears front The Strokes or have Cher complement Echo and the Bunnymen. Copyright infringements aside, anything is possible.

The “Kill Bill” mash-up is credited to Malcom McLaren — that’s right, the artful dodger who scouted the right-looking lads in London and turned them into those enfants terribles of punk music, the Sex Pistols, who screamed about anarchy over distorted Chuck Berry licks. As our heroine, The Bride (Uma Thurman), prepares to have her final vengeance, the lyrics of The Zombies “She’s Not There” segue perfectly into drama (“But it’s too late to say you’re sorry/How would I know, why should I care?/Please don’t bother trying to find her/She’s not there”). The confrontation, the one we’ve all been waiting for after so much acrobatic mayhem, comes quietly in a flash while the duelists are seated at a dining table.

It’s a perfect QT moment, pulled off with a wink to the side then a masterful flourish. It also encapsulates the “Kill Bill” modus operandi: The director tips his hat to spiritual forefathers while upping the ante, paying respect while showing off what he’s learned. It’s fitting that much of “Kill Bill” is all about the teacher/pupil relationship and the eventual need to move beyond the sensei. Call it post-traditionalism.

“Vol. 1″ was entertaining enough, but to many it came off as a gratuitous martial-arts geekfest. With “Vol. 2,” though, the pace is slowed, making room for the loopy dialogue that Tarantino also made his mark with. The mad cross-referencing is still there, but this time it’s deeper in the mix. If you can catch the riffs, great. If, say, you have no idea why one chapter is called “The Lonely Grave of Paula Shultz,” no problem. You’re still in for a terrific ride.

Appropriately for his verbiage-heavy followup, “Vol. 2″ is set in the painted valleys of spaghetti westerns, the land of John Ford as reinterpreted by Sergio Leone. As if viewers haven’t gotten the message, Tarantino bluntly reminds us that we’re in movie-world in the opening sequence. Filmed in glowing black and white, The Bride looks into the theater as she recaps the action thus far. “I went on what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge.” She’s knocked two members of DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assasination Squad) off her kill-list and she’s got three left. It’s that simple.

But somewhere along the path to vengeance, things get messy. In “Vol. 2,” we learn why Bill wanted to take The Bride out of action. The details shouldn’t be revealed; let’s just say that their relationship went past the professional and one result has complicated matters.

What can be told is that we get to finally see Bill in the flesh. As Tarantino showed with his selection of John Travolta, Pam Grier and many others, half of a Tarantino movie is in the casting. David Carradine’s Bill is one mean snake (or one twisted grasshopper to you “Kung Fu” fans out there), but he is also a man of honor, who respects the rules of the game. Carradine doesn’t just utter his lines; he ponders them a bit, rolling them around in his mouth before spitting them out like curare-tipped darts.

The dramatic depth that Carradine brings is apparent from his first appearance, just prior to the massacre at The Bride’s wedding rehearsal. We’ve already seen the bloody aftermath in “Vol. 1,” so each syllable of Bill and The Bride’s conversation is pregnant with emotion. It’s a beautifully choreographed tango on a tightrope, and there are several more to come.

Tarantino first wowed audiences with his fractured narratives in “Pulp Fiction.” With “Kill Bill: Vol. 2″ he continues the fine tradition by throwing in substantial flashbacks at crucial moments, the best one being a leap back to The Bride’s training under the master Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu). The sequence is a faithful and hilarious re-creation of the Shaw Brothers’ chop-socky films, from the faded colors to the sudden zooming in and out. Just try not to laugh every time the master whips his long, wispy beard.

Interestingly, Tarantino devotes a large chunk of the narrative to Budd (Michael Madsen), who’s fallen on hard times since his days in DiVAS. Living in a dinky trailer in the desert and working as a strip-bar bouncer, Budd is a shell of his former self. In a sorrowful chat with Bill, he muses that maybe the remaining DiVAS deserve what’s heading their way. But, as we later learn, the old swordfighter (who says he has hocked his Hattori Hanso blade for $250!), has a little bit of fight left in him.

On the other hand, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), is still a bit of an enigma, but as the deck’s wild card, the less we know about her the better. You have to love a baddie who reads out a printed Web page in front of her victim, coolly explaining the imminent manner of death.

Put the two volumes together, and what you get is a truly original homage to the B-movie canon. Beneath all the winks and flourishes is a beating heart. Tarantino is a man who loves movies (and music) of all kinds.

At one point in “Vol. 2,” Bill questions why The Bride would give up a life of jetting around the world, killing people for vast sums of money. She had, instead, chosen to settle in a small town, working in a used-record store. Hers was an undoubtedly admirable decision, but thank God Tarantino left his old job in a video shop and went for his own vast-sums-of-money option.