WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
So here we have it—the concluding chapter of Quentin Tarantino's crazy, blood-drenched revenge saga, Kill Bill Volume 2. If ever a film came to theaters awash in high expectations, this is it. Volume 1 was a brilliant allusion-crammed cartoon of a movie, filled with gore and smirks—but it really was only half a film. In my review of Volume 1, I lamented the decision on the part of Tarantino and Miramax to cut this film in half in the first place. I wrote, "Kill Bill Volume 1 isn't entirely successful as one film. It needs its second half." I penned those words a day before experiencing the conclusion of the saga. When I entered the theater that Friday in April, anticipation was admittedly high, but I was confident that Tarantino would pull off a cinematic feat of great showmanship and craft.
It's clear from the start that Tarantino is going for a different tone in Volume 2. The pace is more languid, and the dialog is drawn out for effect. The movie is more wide-open desertscapes than the tight interiors of Volume 1. As Tarantino explains, "Volume 1 is my Hong Kong/Japanese kung-fu movie, and Volume 2 is my spaghetti western," and the cinematography and twangy score make that quite clear from the start. Those intentions are lofty, and I respect them. However, as Volume 2 flickered before me, my attention quite reluctantly began to wander. The giddy excitement and enthusiasm generated by Volume 1's thrilling, bloody sense of purpose started to wane as each long minute of Volume 2 played out. And as the extended, self-congratulatory credit sequence rolled at the end of Volume 2, I sat back in my seat and came to a difficult conclusion: Although Tarantino proved himself in the first film to be a master of eastern allusion and parody, his attempts to go western just aren't as successful. Quentin Tarantino ain't no Sergio Leone.
As much fun as many of its individual scenes are, Kill Bill Volume 2 becomes a victim of that fateful decision to cut this saga in half. Now we really have to ask: Was it a blatant cash grab to engender two separate theatrical releases and a forthcoming tidal wave of lucrative double-punch DVD releases? Was it worth it? Because here's what the decision has done: In Volume 1, Tarantino fashioned a taut, wondrous concoction—an unapologetic orgy of gore and style. He exhibited masterful control of his all-over-the-map subject matter, indulging himself, yes, but reigning in those myriad influences and delivering a tightly wound blast of fun. But in Volume 2, Tarantino gives in far more to his indulgences, forgoing the precise editing of the first film and—because he has so much extra running time to use—losing his senses of rhythm and cinematic marksmanship. Many of Volume 2's scenes have a haphazard quality, as if he's hastily drawn them up on the set, as if he's scribbled out lazy dialog and blocking on the spot. Tarantino films usually thrive on the simple pleasures of cool characters yakking with each other, but in this film, the words are stilted, uncontrolled, unpolished. Given a vast canvas, the director has overextended himself, wildly flailing when his brushstrokes should be practiced and controlled, when the film should be wielding the magical sense of purpose with which the first film positively glowed. A singular Kill Bill film would have reigned in Tarantino's decadent tendencies. I consider this concluding chapter to be a missed opportunity.
Kill Bill Volume 2 certainly has its moments—a bevy of them. Which makes its ultimate failure even more frustrating: The parts are all here for a fitting conclusion to this saga. As we know from Volume 1, the blood-spattered Bride (Uma Thurman) has exacted her furious revenge on two members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), and she's on her way to visit her remaining wrath on her other former partners, Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and—yes, we finally meet him face-to-face—the eponymous Bill (David Carradine). You already know the rumors of how this brutal squad left her for dead on the eve of her wedding in an El Paso chapel, and in the stark opening of Volume 2, we experience the gory day in flashback, and the scene is set for the Bride's "raging rampage of revenge" to conclude.
The most satisfying extended sequence of Volume 2 occurs just after its first act, following the Bride's first confrontation with Budd. Tarantino masterfully choreographs a series of events that take the bride underground—in a protracted scene of mounting, claustrophobic horror—to the far east, where she undergoes the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), and back again to face her blond nemesis, Elle Driver. The flashback tutelage scene is a comically satisfying homage and serves a greater purpose that hits all the right notes. The Elle/Bride brawl is a splendidly brutal, knock-down slugfest that ranks as one of the greatest fight sequences in the saga. This half hour of screen time is immensely satisfying and almost redeems the film. But there's about 90 slack minutes surrounding these thrilling moments, footage that flows at you just begging for the studied hand of a competent editor. What happened to that "roaring rampage of revenge"?
Indeed, the bulk of Volume 2 can't exactly be called roaring. Perhaps "rambling rampage of revenge" suits the pace of this film better. You can sense Tarantino's self-satisfied chortle behind the camera as he languidly follows Budd to his demeaning strip-joint job and lets him engage in snarky conversation with his slimy boss. You can hear Tarantino in the interminable open spaces between awkward swatches of dialog. And he's there in the long, unnecessary exchange between a too-at-ease Bride and Bill's father figure, Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks). You can even hear his geeky twitter while Bill is making that goddamn sandwich and telling a story about a goldfish. Volume 2 is filled with moments that overstay their welcome, and you might defend them by acknowledging Tarantino's desire to emulate the drawn-out, wide-open sequences of some Leone epic, perhaps Once Upon a Time in the West, but there's a vital difference between Leone's practiced, deconstructionist studies and Tarantino's masturbatory excess.
The ending of Kill Bill Volume 2 is particularly unsatisfying, not only because it promises a gorgeous moonlight Hatori Hanzo saber duel and never delivers it, but mostly because it's remarkably empty and talky. The actors seem suddenly awkward behind their characters, particularly Bill, who speaks big paragraphs of dialog that have all the resonance of scribbled cocktail-napkin notes. The Bride, having waded through rivers of blood and climbed mountains of severed limbs to get to this point, is hardly a presence in the climax of her own story. She spends most of the final half hour sitting and listening to Bill talk. And talk.
In my review of Kill Bill Volume 1, my only minor complaint was Tarantino's predilection for self-indulgence. I wrote, "It's probably best that you don't look too closely at this marvelous contraption. When you do, you see that Tarantino has perhaps indulged himself a bit too often, and the more questionable scenes—the ones that linger too long, the ones that smirk a little too noticeably—start to bug you." In Volume 2, my complaint is the same, except this time, there's no getting past it.
I've given Kill Bill Volume 2 a fairly thorough drubbing, mostly as an alternative take on a film that receives much adoration from avid Tarantino fans. I know the man has a built-in audience that raves endlessly about his work and is perhaps reluctant to peek beneath the flashy surface and really take a long, hard look at his faults as a writer or a director. The truth is that Kill Bill as a whole is a remarkable achievement, and I don't want to take a lot away from that. I just want to voice the opinion that Tarantino is at his best when exercising some degree of restraint. I would still recommend Kill Bill Volume 2, with reservations.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents Kill Bill Volume 2 in an anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. You'll notice right away that this image bests that of Volume 1, which suffered from a frustrating softness. Detail here is much stronger, reaching into backgrounds and giving the presentation a liquid depth. The color palette in Volume 2 is much less lurid than that of Volume 1, being more influenced by spaghetti westerns than by Hong Kong choppy-socky. The more earthy tones come across vividly but naturally, and flesh tones appear accurate without being too pink. Excellent job.
The bad news is that edge enhancement rears its ugly head: Notice the distracting halos in the opening black-and-white sequence at the chapel. I also noticed occasional digital grain in backgrounds, as if the image suffered from too-high contrast levels. Overall, however, video noise is minor, resulting in a filmlike presentation. This image is better than my memory of the theatrical experience.
Thanks to Miramax for mostly getting its act together and improving on the first film's substandard image.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
As with Volume 1, the disc offers two fine surround presentations: a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. Both offer aggressive and dynamic surround presentations, from the quiet, open spaces of the track to the pounding violence of the louder moments. In both presentations, the falling dirt in the grave sequence is a huge, immersive thing, perfectly capturing the bride's horror. Dialog is clean and natural, with a nice low-end depth. Bass is heavy and thudding, as in the brutal, knockdown fight between the Bride and Elle Driver. My memory of the theatrical screening is that the bass in this scene was more broken up at the low end, suffering from distortion. Here, the bass seems tighter and more in control, but no less powerful. Surround activity isn't overly aggressive, going more for envelopment than for discrete effects. Robert Rodriguez's score translates splendidly for the home theater.
Direct comparisons between the Dolby and DTS tracks reveal that—as usual—the DTS track has been set at a higher level and therefore immediately seems to be the more powerful track. Close listening reveals that, even with levels balanced, the DTS track has the edge. It's a more open, spacious track, feeling more enveloping because of elevated and precise surround activity and, most impressively, stronger and tighter bass.
Subtitles are player-generated.
There's also a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The supplements on this disc are on par with those of the Volume 1 disc—light and frothy, seeming to hold its good stuff for an inevitable special-edition release in which the two films will be combined.
First up is the 26-minute The Making of Kill Bill Vol. 2, a featurette that's very similar in tone and content to the featurette on the first film's DVD. We get talking-head interviews with Tarantino, Thurman, Carradine, Madsen, composer Robert Rodriguez, and producer Lawrence Bender, all of whom talk about the film with excitement and pride. Tarantino maintains that "Volume 1 is the questions, and Volume 2 is the answers." Actually, he spends good deal of time explaining his intentions (perhaps overly so), also stating that the first film sets the mythology, and the second lets you get to know the characters. Apparently not content to leave it at that, he explains further, "Volume 1 is from the east, and Volume 2 is from the west." Okay, we get it. I did enjoy this piece's coverage of the film's casting, particularly of two actors—Gordon Liu and Michael Parks—in dual roles.
The 12-minute CHINGON Performance From the Kill Bill Vol. 2 Premiere is a lively peek at a live performance by Robert Rodriguez, who, with CHINGON, performs a few of his themes/songs from the film. The music is rousing, and it makes you want to seek out the soundtrack CD.
Finally, we come to what is in my opinion the best supplement on the disc, the 4-minute Damoe Deleted Scene, which is one kick-ass piece of footage. Frankly, this scene should have been left in the film. It involves Bill and the Bride, in happier times, walking through a village and encountering a band of vengeful thugs. The resulting fight scene is exquisite in its humor and playful choreography. And wonder of wonders, it's presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
But where's the trailer? A teaser trailer for this film appeared on the first film's DVD, but there's nothing here. I enjoyed the "bootleg" Volume 1 trailers on the first disc and was hoping for something similar here. I suppose trailers are among the items Tarantino is saving for the inevitable comprehensive edition.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
My hope is for Tarantino to put together a tighter, more focused cut of the complete Kill Bill saga, but realistically, I see little chance that will happen. Kill Bill will therefore remain a frustrating endeavor—a sparkling joyride that bogs down in excess, thanks to a marketing decision. This DVD release of Volume 2 at least boasts image quality that bests that of the first film's DVD release, and the supplements are modest but strong. (That deleted scene is particularly worth your time.) But you should pause before making your purchase, with the knowledge that we'll see at least one more DVD incarnation of Kill Bill, complete with voluminous extras and, probably, even better image and sound quality.