If "Kill Bill - Vol. 1" was like a roundhouse kick to the head, "Kill Bill - Vol. 2" is practically a warm hug.
Oh, there's still plenty of violence in the second half of Quentin Tarantino's samurai-kung fu-spaghetti Western-blaxploitation megamix. A knock-down, drag-out cat fight in which Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah destroy a trailer (and each other) with amazonian fury is a prime example.
There just isn't the kind of cartoonish blood and gore that saturated the first film, which came out last fall. "Vol. 2" ends on a note that could almost be described as heartwarming, with Thurman's character - a vengeful assassin known as The Bride - finding happiness in a traditional way.
Is Tarantino going soft? Hardly. "Vol. 2" is every bit as thrilling as the first, but it also features more of the stylized, rhythmic dialogue that has become the writer-director's trademark through films like "Pulp Fiction."
This gives the second film an emotional resonance that the first lacked, and it brings the enormity of the whole project into perspective.
I'd still like to see both parts shown together in a theater; cinematographer Robert Richardson shot "Kill Bill" so breathtakingly and in so many varied styles, it seems watching the film in its entirety at home on DVD wouldn't do it justice.
Tarantino has said he released "Vol. 2" several months after "Vol. 1" because it would have been too much of a sensory overload for audiences to sit through the whole thing at once.
I was among the many critics who decried Miramax's decision to divide the film as "a marketing ploy to get filmgoers to pay twice." I'd be curious now, though, to experience both halves melded together.
The cliffhanger ending of "Vol. 1" revealed that the baby taken from The Bride while she was in a coma is still alive. In "Vol. 2," she sets out to get revenge on the rest of her former comrades in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who tried to kill her on her wedding day.
There's Budd (Michael Madsen), the sleazy brother of her former lover and boss, Bill. There's the eyepatch-wearing Elle Driver annah), who has become the top killer in The Bride's absence. And, of course, there's Bill himself - represented only in rich, baritone voiceovers in "Vol. 1" but now a main character played by David Carradine.
And what a fabulous casting choice Carradine is to play the charming, dangerous Bill; he's one of Tarantino's idols from his television role in "Kung Fu," but he also has such gravitas about him, such a look of experience on his weathered face, he's truly magnetic.
Despite the twisted nature of the relationship between Bill and The Bride, their scenes together are surprisingly moving. They also buzz with tension because we know from the title alone what she plans to do to him.
In flashbacks, we see another of Tarantino's idols, Chinese film veteran Gordon Liu, challenging The Bride as her martial arts instructor. Their scenes together have a campy authenticity, with the camera zooming in quickly on his face to catch the twitch in his white eyebrows as he barks out orders and insults.
"Your anger amuses me," he tells The Bride in subtitles. "Do you think you are my match?"
But the training also showcases Thurman's intensity and athleticism. Some critics said her character wasn't developed enough in part one; she is here, and while she's an intimidating spectacle to behold, she also gets to show a softer side. And that's a deadly combination.
"Kill Bill - Vol. 2," a Miramax Films release, is rated R for violence, language and brief drug use. Running time: 136 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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