Tarantino’s At It Again, Volume Two

It will take some time to determine whether or not Kill Bill marks a dip in Quentin Tarantino’s career, the beginning of a precipitous decline into irrelevancy, or the outing of him as an overrated hack. Some folks have held the latter view all along, but with three excellent movies to his name, I’m inclined to give the guy one more chance.

Mind you, I kinda liked Volume One, and looked forward to see some of its promise fulfilled in Volume Two. Instead, everything fell apart. The word of the day, ladies and gents, is “self-indulgent.” Set aside your notions of Tarantino’s violent epic being underappreciated by skeptical studio bigwigs, so that rather than do damage to his masterwork by slicing it down, he insisted on releasing it in two parts. It’s now clear that slicing it down would have been doing it a great service—and I say that as someone who appreciates the patient, even languorous cadence of much of Tarantino’s camerawork. But Volume Two was downright boring at times, because the dialogue only occasionally lived up to what we’ve come to expect. There was the Hanzo stuff in Part One, and in Part Two . . . I dunno, Darryl Hannah was good, and maybe about 40% of Michael Madsen’s lines had the old familiar punch. But the old Pulp Fiction vibe, where you could have listened to Vincent and Jules just talk about any old stuff for hours, is long gone. Many scenes in Kill Bill, including the ho-hum final minutes with Bill himself, sound like a high school kid imitating Tarantino badly.

There’s no doubt that he was trying to live up to his previous successes, so the question is, why does he fail so thoroughly? Something I’ve long suspected, based on the how he comes off in interviews and other publicity, is that he has no flying clue what made his first couple movies so good. Kill Bill has little cohesion; it ends up being a series of cool moments—or rather, moments that Tarantino thinks are cool. He’s only right some of the time.

Another, darker failing of his that has finally become clear to me is this: he finds abhorrent violence terribly funny. One of his strengths has always been the fact that he does not sugercoat violence, or pussyfoot around its most graphic and troubling aspects. He doesn’t allow us to get comfortable. But I’m afraid this may be accidental, because for him the violence we’re talking about—a goon splurting blood from a lost limb, a woman thrashing on the floor after losing her last eye—is already comfortable for him. If this is true it is rather damning of the man, not necessarily his work, though this particular movie seems to be a clear expression of his personal quirks unfettered by editorial critique or high inspiration.

Maybe the old meme is true, that it was Roger Avary who was responsible for all that was good about Pulp Fiction. There, the contents of the suitcase are left a tantalizing mystery; in Kill Bill, the Bride’s real name is a similar enigma, bleeped out every time somebody utters it, until halfway through Volume 2, when we learn that it’s: Beatrix Kiddo. Huh? That’s it?

I still disagree with Aaron Haspel, though, about the importance of Tarantino’s originality or lack thereof. The man’s a master of pastiche, and until he transcends that he’ll never join the ranks of Great Directors, but in doing so he is hardly alone. The bare fabula of Kill Bill holds promise:

A story of revenge in which a young woman seeks out those who tried to kill her and (she believes) caused the death of her then-unborn child. Inspired by her rage, she overcomes impossible odds and, leaving a bloody wake, arrives at the home of her enemy, who is also the father of her lost baby. She discovers the baby was not lost, but that her enemy has in fact taken her daughter and raised her as his own. He explains that he did what he did in order to punish her for trying to leave her life as an assassin. Knowing all this, the young woman must decide what to do. She kills her enemy and leaves with her daughter.

There’s a good movie to be made out of such a premise; this one fails because of haphazard and at times halfhearted execution. The final scenes are particularly bad, with meandering, mediocre speeches and the use of the Bride’s daughter as a trite emotional bludgeon.

Given all this, why am I giving Tarantino one more chance? Partly because I’ve been here before; after going out of my way to watch the abysmal From Dusk Till Dawn on the strength of the QT writing credit, I told myself I’d give the guy one more chance—and he turned up with Jackie Brown. Also, there’s some stuff to like in Volume Two. The fight between the Bride and California Mountain Snake is a thrill, though for that we can credit Yuen Wo Ping. The RZA’s score remains great fun. I’ll give Tarantino credit for the whole buried-alive sequence, which is claustrophic, merciless, and gripping. Across Volumes One and Two there are perhaps half a dozen scenes like that which remind you of what he is capable of. All in all, a rather poor showing for several years’ work.

Postscript: I try to make a point of not looking a commentary on a movie ‘till I’ve seen at myself and written about it if the whim strikes me. (I did read Aaron’s comments before writing this time, but I already knew what he was going to say.) Having just did a brief scan of some of the reviews out there, I have to say I’m surprised at the generally positive notes for Volume Two. Was I just surly when I saw it? Did my aggravating experience immediately afterward color my impressions? I doubt it. Someday I’ll go back and give Kill Bill another chance: if his next project turns out to be a more unqualified success.