I had an interesting conversation the other night with a local theater impresario who recently produced, directed and acted in a play by a young Turk British playwright named Martin McDonagh. The director and I fell into a colloquy about this dramatist and the hostility he engenders in critics who want his plays--as indisputably entertaining and well-crafted as they are--to have a message of deep social and political import.
In order to have a good debate, interlocutors must adopt rhetorically opposed positions, so it fell to me to argue that a smartly executed entertainment that amuses, horrifies and surprises its audience is a worthwhile achievement in itself, and consequently superior to the earnest drama that places a higher value on pedagogy and social uplift.
As it happens, the playwright in question is on record claiming Quentin Tarantino as one of his primary influences. As I thought about the position I'd staked out vis-a-vis McDonagh, I realized that I've held the opposite position regarding Tarantino. That is, yes, Tarantino can tell a good story, but he lives in a world of movies and television; he has nothing to say about the world we live in and furthermore, everything in his movies is homage to, or a rip-off of, something else. I've always felt Tarantino was phenomenally talented, but I've resented his unwillingness to put his talent in the service of more socially redeeming projects. But then I saw Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2, the impressively entertaining second half of his four-hour revenge epic.
I didn't much care for Vol. I, which opened last fall, finding it to be a disturbingly sadistic and empty aesthetic exercise devoid of genuine emotion and character development. I'm not ready to repudiate that review, but I'm happy to report that while the final half of the story is also a long collection of Tarantino's favorite movie moments, it displays a genuine warmth and narrative credibility that is lacking in the first part.
There are several reasons why this second part is so much more appealing than the first. I think the most important is the presence of David Carradine as Bill. In the first film, he was a shadowy, not-quite-seen presence. Here, Carradine, who's a very youthful 67, is seen right away and he's hardly the demiurge we expect. Carradine, who was cast largely because of his starring role in the 1970s TV show Kung Fu, is a benign, kindly presence, a wise and smiling sugar daddy to Thurman, his most brilliant protege. We see scenes of wry tenderness between the lovers, thus giving the plot the emotional heft that was missing from the first film. But we can't get too attached to Bill; we know he's got to have a heart of cold steel because the film's title, after all, is Kill Bill.
We meet Bill at the West Texas church where Uma Thurman will soon be gunned down. In the first film, we learned that Bill was the leader of an all-female assassination squad of which Thurman's Black Mamba was the most fearsome. For reasons that were unclear in the first film--and that remain so for most of the second--Bill orders his killers to rub out the Black Mamba on her wedding day, in the church.
The first movie was taken up with Thurman emerging from a four-year coma and exacting revenge on two of her five assailants. But what was so unsatisfying about that film was its paucity of motive and character. It was a very busy film, full of disjunctive editing, voiceover and a special animated tribute chapter to Japanese anime, but it was also a stone cold spectacle of gore, rife with relentless allusions to chop-socky cinema. But part two is set entirely in Texas, and it is told as a Western, the genre that most closely mirrors the pulp martial arts films of Asia. While villains played by Vivica Fox and Lucy Liu met their ends in Los Angeles and Tokyo in the first film, three targets remain in the new film: Daryl Hannah's vicious one-eyed nurse, Michael Madsen's fast-fading desert redneck and, of course, Carradine's Bill. And they're all in Texas.
One wonders if Tarantino re-edited this film after the release of the first volume, because a couple of devices have been dropped: the slip of paper on which Thurman lists the five people she intends to kill, and the non-linear narrative. Instead, the second installment is structured with a straight time-line, save for flashbacks to the fateful wedding day and most spectacularly, a delightful account of Thurman's martial arts training with the cruel tutor Pai Mei. This instructor, played by 1970s martial arts star Gordon Liu, is Tarantino's silliest and most inspired creation yet, a foppish guru with a ridiculously fake beard who nonetheless possesses the secret to the "five-point exploding heart technique." In another creative touch, Pai Mei's school is located in what seems to be an overgrown, neglected state park off a highway rather than some swank Shangri-La soundstage.
In last Sunday's New York Times, critic Dave Kehr charted a persuasive outline of Tarantino's master plan of cinematic synthesis. Volume 1, set largely in Asia, is a tribute to Japanese and Chinese action movie forms, while the second part, set in Texas, is a celebration of the Western with borrowings from John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Sergio Leone and others. There's no denying Kehr's thesis, but pastiche can only go so far. While it's fun to identify Tarantino's sources, one still wishes for a motive, a raison d'etre for this film beyond sheer movie love. When we see, for example, Thurman staggering through the desert, in and out of focus, we recognize the allusion to Once Upon a Time in the West. But it's a showy, gratuitous borrowing--this Sergio Leone moment is no match for the chilling original in which the apparition is played by a very frightening Henry Fonda. Consequently, the scene feels like little more than a nod to an earlier, fresher era of filmmaking.
Still, I'd rather see two hours of Tarantino quoting the old masters in devoted but often quite witty ways than sit through five minutes of The Punisher (or, for that matter, The Passion of the Christ). And Tarantino creates a few scenes that will be forever identified as his; particularly unforgettable is the best buried-alive scene you'll ever see (even if it ends with an unnecessary lift from Carrie).
And, it must be said, the grand finale of Kill Bill is well worth waiting for. It's the sweetest, most tender sequence Tarantino has ever filmed even as it contains his wicked wit and an untimely death. With Kill Bill's deftly executed climax, this carnival of pastiche, tributes, borrowings and theft turns into a surprisingly sentimental movie worth celebrating. I don't think I'll revisit the film's first part anytime soon, but the second volume of Kill Bill stands quite ably on its own as a freestanding work of art.
In the film's denouement, two characters are watching a cartoon on TV and the film's final words arrive in the form of a dialogue fragment, no doubt chosen with care and relish by Tarantino: "Always remember: The magpie deserves your respect," says an avian character. Indeed. And while I learn to respect the magpie--Tarantino, of course--I'll eat a little crow, too.