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Dud Again

With Kill Bill Volume 2, Tarantino Does a Bad Sergio Leone Impression.

Well, at least we find out how it ends. After two installments and four hours of running time, Kill Bill finally reveals whether it will fulfill the promise of its title. Now we can all move on.

Regular readers may recall that I was not fond of Volume 1 of Quentin Tarantino's epic homage to kung fu movies, spaghetti westerns, and Uma Thurman's feet. The good news is that there is less to dislike in Kill Bill Volume 2--no parents casually murdered in front of their children, no jokes about pedophilia or raping the comatose, a vastly diminished body count. The bad news is that there is just less in this sequel/conclusion. Where KB1 had the pace of an ADHD six-year-old on a sugar high, KB2 has been Ritalinized, its tempo slowed to a crawl in self-conscious, and self-defeating, imitation of Sergio Leone. It's two hours that feel like five.

First, a recap: The Bride (Thurman) has left her life as an international assassin in order to marry and have a baby. Unfortunately at her wedding (it's revealed in KB2 that it was really her wedding rehearsal--how's that for a plot twist?), she's gunned down and left for dead, along with the entire wedding party and, apparently, her unborn child. After four years in a coma, she awakes and seeks revenge on her almost-killers, namely former employer/lover Bill (David Carradine) and four other members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In KB1, she dispatched two of them (Viveca Fox and Lucy Liu); in KB2 she concerns herself with two more (Michael Madsen and Darryl Hannah), as well as Bill himself.

The movie opens, as the previous one did, with a close-up of the bloody, wedding-dressed Thurman being shot in the head. From there it cuts to a shot of her driving a car along a lonely desert road. Actually, it's pretty obviously a shot of her sitting in a dummy car in a studio somewhere, with a lonely desert road projected behind her. Presumably, this is a deliberate stab at campy fakeness. So, too, one imagines, is the ensuing monologue, which Thurman offers the camera with all the conviction and sincerity of a phone-sex operator: "When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements refer to as a 'roaring rampage of revenge.' I roared. And I rampaged. And I got bloody satisfaction. I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I have only one more. The last one. The one I'm driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill." Anyone who saw the first film will immediately recognize that this does not seem right; when it ended there were still three names on the Bride's death list. But, as he did in the first movie, Tarantino has decided to camouflage the extraordinary narrative simplicity of his story by telling it out of sequence. Only he hasn't, really: Following Uma's expository opening, KB2 doubles back and then unfolds in chronological order but for a few flashbacks. The car scene is just a gimmick, and a remarkably idle one.

Thurman tracks down Michael Madsen in El Paso; Darryl Hannah joins them soon after. One of the two winds up dead, the other debilitated. Along the way we're offered a flashback to the Bride's training by an abusive kung fu master. (Picture a cross between The Karate Kid and a women's prison movie; when he tells you to "paint the house" you damn well better paint it.) Then Thurman embarks on her foreseen car ride to meet Bill at his Mexican hideaway. There, the surprise that awaits her--though not anyone who saw KB1--is that the baby she thought she'd lost is in fact alive, and has grown into just the kind of precious moppet that has been shown to excel at selling Pepsi. Momma bonds with baby by watching Shogun Assassin (who says contract killers make bad parents?), and after putting her to bed, catches up with Bill. She left him, she explains, when she found out she was pregnant, because the baby "deserved to be born with a clean slate." Carradine in turn confesses that in massacring her wedding party and putting a bullet in her brainpan he may have "overreacted." Following this heart-to-heart, the Bride settles her dispute with Bill, and she and her daughter embark on what promises to be life of maternal bliss and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons.

There is something more than a little discomfiting about these concluding paeans to motherhood. (In the end credits, Thurman's character is listed as the Bride, "a.k.a. Mommy.") This is, after all, the sequel to a movie that reveled in scenes of mothers being killed in front of their young daughters. Thurman tells Carradine that moments after she discovered her pregnancy, she was attacked by a competing assassin. She pleaded with her would-be killer--"Right now, I'm just scared shitless for my baby"--who was thereby persuaded to let her live. Yet in the first movie, when Vivica Fox made the same plea on behalf of her four-year-old daughter, Thurman killed her without second thought or remorse and then told the little girl, "Your mother had it coming." One doesn't expect the Bride's behavior at every moment to be uniform--foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small assassins--but it would be nice if Tarantino made some minimal effort to reconcile these two scenes, offered some sign that he even remembered that this film's Mommy was last film's Mommy-killer.

Maybe it is progress of a sort--moral if not cinematic--that in KB2 Tarantino largely eschews the hyper-violence that characterized its predecessor. But rather than replace it with, say, clever dialogue, imaginative plotting, or meaningful character development, he's substituted the cinematic equivalent of dead air. He intends this to be a nod to the stately, deliberate style of Leone, but it's unaccompanied by any of the elements that made that style great--the use of landscape (both facial and geological), the musical crescendos (Tarantino borrows some Morricone tunes in KB2, but seems afraid of using them in anything other than a minor key), the rhythmic interaction of lengthy buildup followed by momentary violence. (Quentin prefers lengthy buildup followed by lengthy violence; it's not the same thing.) Leone was by nature a mythologizer; Tarantino is by nature a demythologizer. His killer-heroes are not silent, stoic types. They're video store clerks with guns, babblers on every subject from Madonna to French cheeseburgers.

At his best and at his worst Tarantino has always been a sensation junkie, who crammed his movies full of ingenious devices and memorable dialogue. But like KB1, the sequel is almost entirely devoid of these effects, instead focusing on an encyclopedic array of obscure movie references. It's hard to imagine that one viewer in a thousand will get half these allusions. (Did you recognize that the music playing when Thurman kills Carradine was borrowed from the early Burt Reynolds spaghetti western vengeance flick Navajo Joe? Me neither.) But Tarantino no longer seems interested in making intelligent movies for a large audience. Instead, he's offering gore for the masses and genre lessons for the film-geek crowd. Toward the end of KB2, Carradine delivers a short speech on what makes Superman unique among superheroes. It's utterly out of character and not all that clever, but it's nice nonetheless, a brief reminder of a time when Tarantino had so many pop cultural disquisitions in him that they overflowed his own movies and wound up in anything he touched, however briefly--the Top Gun allegory in Sleep With Me, the Silver Surfer bit in Crimson Tide. Back then, Tarantino was in the process of inventing a compelling new voice in film. Now, it appears, he's in the process of forgetting it.