Kung Fu Catfights-The Bride Returns in Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 , from his own screenplay, based on the character of “The Bride” created by Mr. Tarantino and Uma Thurman, can be enjoyed both on its own and as a continuation of Vol. 1 . At the very least, it hangs together better than the three parts of the simultaneously shot Lord of the Rings . But I doubt there will be any Oscar sweeps in Mr. Tarantino’s future, despite the performances of Ms. Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah and Michael Parks, which compare favorably with those of The Lord of the Rings ‘ cast.

Actually, people who stayed away from Vol. 1 because of its genre-dictated violence may find Vol. 2 so much fun that they’ll want to catch up on Vol. 1 . Though the two movies were originally shot as one, Vol. 1 is action-driven, while Vol. 2 is more character-driven. The narrative thrust of the first installment focuses on the near-extinction of its heroine, Ms. Thurman’s Bride (a.k.a. Black Mamba), in a wedding-rehearsal massacre in a rural El Paso chapel, and the Bride’s subsequent quest to exact vengeance on the killers, who happen to be her former criminal associates. By contrast, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 spends time recapitulating and clarifying the back story, which ends up slowing down the film. Yet once the ultimate destination of the narrative is confirmed-and reconfirmed-the essential symmetry of Mr. Tarantino’s back-story retreats becomes apparent. For example, the scene in which the Bride confronts her most implacable rival and enemy, Daryl Hannah’s eyepatch-wearing Elle Driver (a.k.a. California Mountain Snake): The Bride asks her rival how she lost her eye; Elle responds with a flashback to China, where Shaolin martial-arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) is so enraged by Elle’s insolent behavior that he plucks out one of her eyes from its socket and steps on it. Elle’s revenge for her unfortunate loss: poisoning Pai Mei’s food and killing him. Thus, when the Bride plucks out Elle’s other eye and steps on it, it’s not only for her own satisfaction, but for Pai Mei. The kung-fu master was also the Bride’s instructor and provided her with the one secret that will ensure her ultimate victory over her former lover, Bill-who is, by the way, also the organizer of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) and the father of her daughter.

It was the Bride’s decision to leave the DiVAS that spurred Bill to kill her at her wedding rehearsal, along with all her newfound friends. Another flashback informs us that the reason she left the DiVAS in the first place was because she didn’t want the baby she was carrying-courtesy of Bill-to grow up among the murderers who initiated her into the DiVAS.

The Bride’s violent story is that of a woman performing Herculean tasks to make a new beginning for herself and her child. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 is altogether a woman-oriented film of the most bizarre variety. Many if not most women moviegoers may not respond to this unusual empowerment of their gender by such violent means. On the other hand, many male moviegoers may be disappointed that Mr. Tarantino didn’t seize the opportunity to exploit the sensual physical attributes of such tasty morsels as Ms. Thurman and Ms. Hannah, from Vol. 2 , and Lucy Liu and Vivica A. Fox, from Vol. 1 . Indeed, I’m a little disconcerted that my usual complaint-that American censors pay too much attention to sex and not enough to violence-has been stood on its head by Mr. Tarantino. This is to say that the complete absence of lechery in Mr. Tarantino’s gaze not only empowers Ms. Thurman and the other attractive women who are her enemies, but also ennobles her special mission. More than a few critics have noted that David Carradine’s Bill, like the many unseen Charlies in the various versions of Charlie’s Angels , performs the functions of a pimp; both men supervise the activities of pretty women (as assassins in Bill’s case, as detectives in Charlie’s), though there is more jiggling titillation with Charlie’s Angels than with Bill’s Vipers.

Yet, if there is one decisive edge for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 over Vol. 1 , it’s in the fleshing out of the male villains, who were seen only fleetingly in Vol. 1 , but who emerge in rich, full-bodied and humorously talkative characterizations in Vol. 2 . Michael Madsen, who was so memorably evil in Mr. Tarantino’s debut film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), creates a quirky, self-deprecating but subtly menacing character on a very slow-burning fuse, particularly with the seemingly precise deliberation of his shaggy-dog lines and their delayed laughs. But the great revelation of Vol. 2 is Bill himself, a character incarnated out of many “alien” Asian cultures, but with a gift for the hidden ironies of plain talk. It is, of course, Mr. Tarantino’s gift to mold his characters with an affinity for verbosity that reminds me of Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon , proclaiming to Humphrey Bogart: “By gad, sir, you are a character! I like talking to a man who likes to talk.”

Mr. Tarantino knows enough about old movies to know that the best of them were ultimately richest in talk. Nothing fancy, mind you, and nothing abstract, just the kind of stylish patter that Preston Sturges seemed to find on every street corner, in every town hall, in factories and offices-the bawl and brawl of millions of outsiders distilled into a steady stream of vigorous verbiage. Mr. Tarantino has heard this sound in many old movies, and he has come closer than anyone around today to replicating it on the screen. And Mr. Carradine attains almost tragic stature as he walks deliberately toward what he knows is his certain death, head held high, and one last home-grown aphorism stillborn on his lips.

My Third Man

Carol Reed’s The Third Man , from a screenplay by Graham Greene, received its first screening in North America in late 1949 at a Loews Theatre in New Rochelle. I know this because I was there, as a low-paid gofer for the Selznick Releasing Organization. My boss, David O. Selznick (1902-1965), was distributing this Alexander Korda U.K. production in the U.S. and had the sneak preview in New Rochelle follow right after the main feature, Frank Borzage’s then-underrated Moonrise (1948). At that time, I was still a floundering student at Columbia College with vague writing ambitions coupled with an obsessive interest in movies.

Mr. Selznick had been driven up to the screening in a limousine with two of his contract players, Louis Jordan and Rhonda Fleming, and the drop-dead gorgeous Mrs. Selznick, better known as Jennifer Jones. I had driven to the screening in my mother’s Buick with a huge stack of preview cards for the sneak audience.

In retrospect, the movie was too cynical and sophisticated for the good people of New Rochelle. Anton Karas’ zither music elicited endless murmuring and giggling, and at the startling ending, the audience let out whoops and hollers. It was then, and remains to this day, the anti-happy ending of all time. Anyway, after the peasants had dispersed, I ventured to address the king directly (even though he was surrounded by his corporate courtiers telling him that the audience just loved the picture). I had never been introduced to Mr. Selznick at the company offices at 400 Madison Avenue. My less-than-immortal words to him were: “It’s a great picture, but, of course, you’re going to get it rescored.”

I’ve told this story many times over the years as an example of my bad commercial instincts where movies were concerned. Even so, I still don’t like the zither score, and I feel somewhat vindicated to discover that there are now other people who agree with me. Back in 1949, I was completely hooked on the melodious background music of Max Steiner ( Gone With the Wind , The Letter ), Miklós Rózsa ( That Hamilton Woman , The Lost Weekend ), Richard Addinsell ( One Woman’s Story ), William Alwyn ( Odd Man Out ) and Frank Skinner ( Back Street ), among many others. By contrast, Mr. Karas’ zither compositions struck me as relentlessly tuneless and insistently anti-dramatic. But then the leading character, Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins, was anything but heroic as he bumbled around drunkenly in postwar, Allied-occupied Vienna in the shadow of his more charismatic crooked best friend, Orson Welles’ Harry Lime. Much of the time, Martins pathetically pursued Lime’s ex-mistress, played with gloomy sobriety by Alida Valli-Selznick’s failed experiment to create another Garbo in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947). Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee as two no-nonsense British authority figures and Wilfrid Hyde-White as a pompous recruiter of guest lecturers took top acting honors with their crisp performances.

The picture has been mislabeled Hitchcockian, though Hitchcock had unkind words for the film’s dark-and-stormy-night mise en scène . An opposing view was presented by the redoubtable British (and anti-Hitchcock) film historian, Raymond Durgnat, who opted for Reed and Greene as superior to Hitchcock in their tougher-minded approach to the genre.

I find myself halfway between these two positions, since I have been an admirer of both Reed and Hitchcock in different periods of my critical evolution. Seen today, The Third Man -criticized at the Cannes Film Festival for its lack of idealism-can be appreciated as a prophetic statement on the eventual moral bankruptcy of the one-world euphoria that clouded men’s minds immediately after the second “war to end all wars.” Still, much of the movie is wickedly funny, and the rest is a tribute to the authenticity of its location shooting.

The Third Man is showing at the Film Forum on April 14 and 15.

Kung Fu Catfights-The Bride Returns in Kill Bill: Vol. 2