Like him or not --- and most of the time I don't --- Quentin Tarantino really deserves a measure of credit for his cinematic version of a bold, clever con game.
Like the Coen brothers, he introduces a strain of irony into his pictures with the equivalent of a wink and a nudge that allows him to exploit exactly the sort of graphic, excessive violence that the same critics who rave about his work generally deplore in, say, some run-of-the-cemetery horror flick. As long as he exaggerates enough and throws in enough bad jokes and dumb stories --- see Pulp Fiction --- he gets away with murder, as the saying goes, and of a particularly bloody variety at that.
His latest movie, the completion of the moderately successful but loudly praised Kill Bill, Vol. 1, imaginatively entitled Kill Bill, Vol. 2, naturally exhibits the mixture as before: a series of vaguely related episodes, most of them featuring physical conflict, martial arts, shooting, swordplay, and buckets of blood.
Each episode constitutes a chapter in the two-volume work, with antiquated, pulp-fiction (of course) titles on the screen, e.g., "The Cruel Tutelage of PaiMei" and "The Massacre at Two Pines Chapel." Uma Thurman, who plays the protagonist, an accomplished assassin wonderfully named Beatrix Kiddo, introduces several of the episodes in a voice-over narrative, sometimes supplying additional information about the people and the situation.
In keeping with his decidedly academic approach to film, which guarantees a warm reception from the reviewers, Tarantino also imitates or alludes to a number of different genres in as many different visual styles. He begins the movie with a dark, grainy black and white scheme that resembles the chiaroscuro effects of film noir, especially of the B grade, then shifts to a much lighter, virtually overexposed black and white that bleaches much of the screen and creates an intense halation around the characters.
In other episodes and locations he uses what appears to be a coarse, smeary videotape in which the colors run into each other and the setups now and then seem clumsy and amateurish; other episodes resemble old television shows, while many in color look as slick and expensive as any Hollywood product.
Along with the various color schemes, the writer-director also fills his picture with the recognizable material content of those other kinds of films. Beatrix Kiddo, for example, employs the skills of the cinematic martial artist in fighting a number of opponents, assuming those familiar poetic postures from a hundred king-fu movies --- Squatting Mongoose, Prancing Cockroach, Flatulent Camel, or something of that nature --- and floating and spinning in the usual implausible slow-motion ballet. David Carradine, who plays the title character, frequently imparts lessons to her in the tone of the ancient master who first instructed him in a popular television series many years ago --- it must gratify him finally to have the sandal on the other foot.
The other dominant technique derives from the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and others, turning much of the film into what might be called pasta noir, a mingling of modes that generally exaggerates and stylizes all the actions, overloading unimportant objects with meaning through tight closeups held for long periods. In many scenes the director positions his camera at eye level, then holds endlessly on the face of an actor who often squints in the approved Lee Van Cleef manner, while the music of the immortal EnnioMorricone plays on the soundtrack.
The discrete chapters, each displaying those distinct visual styles, occur out of chronological sequence, and require a surprising amount of talky exposition to sew all the parts together into a comprehensible whole. Beatrix and Bill spend a good deal of time hashing over their mutual history and explaining themselves to each other. Bill recounts tedious anecdotes, delivers long, pedantic lectures, and utters many words of warning to Beatrix in a meticulous professorial manner, so precious and precise that you can hear the semicolons chiming.
The acting meshes almost seamlessly with both the self-conscious tedium and the general overstatement of the script. The two leggy blondes, Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah, antagonists in the movie, play their parts with a sort of mirror effect, each matching the other in martial arts maneuvers, self-conscious irony, and embarrassingly obvious gags, looking for laughs in all the wrong places. David Carradine's attitude of world-weary cynicism rapidly grows as tiresome as his endless discourses.
A typically Tarantinian violence permeates the action, forming an ironic counterpoint to all the learned disquisitions. Aside from a number of shootings and those martial arts encounters, the motion picture features such jolly stuff as a live interment, an attack by a pet black mamba, and two eye gougings, one of them enlivened by the gouger (Beatrix) gleefully squashing the plucked eyeball underfoot like a large, ripe grape. If that makes Kill Bill, Vol. 2 your bowl of fruit, then eat up --- it's pure Tarantino.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2, starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Samuel L. Jackson; written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.