When was the last time you got high from a movie?
In all the films a working critic sees in a given year, maybe three or four brief moments fuse image, sound, and energy into a combustible rush. Less than a handful of times do you feel a director working at full throttle, using the medium in a way that prompts astonishment, delight, even gratitude.
"Kill Bill, Vol. 2" fills that quota and keeps going, delivering scene after scene in which the audience is picked up by the scruff of its collective neck and tossed playfully about the theater. If Quentin Tarantino is the Energizer Bunny of moviemakers, in this second installment of his Wagnerian revenge pastiche -- a film richer in every way than its illustrious, callow predecessor -- he has plugged back into depth of feeling and matched "Pulp Fiction" stride for stride. The result is insanely good, and the best time I've had at the movies in ages.
"Vol. 2" is both less and more than "Vol. 1." It's nowhere near as bloody, for one thing, a development that will come as a relief to weenies (such as myself) who don't really enjoy watching limbs get severed with bravura style. The martial-arts overkill that reduced the first film to a brilliant toy is replaced here with a more discursive yet oddly focused and confident approach. If "Vol. 1" was Tarantino's cross-riffing homage to the action movies of Japan and China, "Vol. 2" looks West to American and European art movies of the '60s and '70s and, above all, to the thundering spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. Not for nothing is repurposed Ennio Morricone film music all over the soundtrack.
Don't fret: You still get to see Uma Thurman's Bride lay enemies to waste. But you also get such chatty Tarantino set pieces as the Bride's ex-boss/ex-lover/mortal enemy Bill (David Carradine) explaining why Clark Kent represents Superman's lousy opinion of the human race. There's a becomingly maternal world-weariness to the film, too, in spite of all the high-flying kicks. When the Bride and Bill sit down for a discussion toward the end of the film, "Kill Bill" stands revealed as a relationship drama -- one of a particularly lethal stripe. As Bill himself admits, "There are consequences to breaking the heart of a murdering bastard." I think this is Tarantino's idea of couple's therapy.
Puckishly, the director finally gives us the beginning of "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" at the beginning of "Kill Bill, Vol. 2." We don't exactly see the wedding chapel massacre that put the Bride in that four-year coma from which she emerged as a vengeful Fury, but we witness the long run-up, in luminous wide-screen black and white. She has tried to ditch Bill and the assassin's life for which he tutored her, he and his minions have tracked her down, and as the two verbally parry on the chapel's dusty front porch, their faces sit like Easter Island close-ups on either side of the screen. The image references John Ford westerns, existential Antonioni dramas, the confrontations in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" -- at times, Tarantino seems hell-bent on recapitulating the entire history of the cinema.
But there are other fish to maim. "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" clicks into parched color as the Bride stalks the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. First up is Bill's kid brother Budd, played by Michael Madsen as if he were the last dishonest cowboy on earth. Budd has fallen on hard times: living in a trailer in the desert, can't even keep a job as a bouncer at the My Oh My Club, wears an existential funk almost as big as his hat. The Bride's encounter with him results in a sequence I advise claustrophobes to skip: Rarely has the crash of dirt hitting wood sounded more terrifying than when you're sitting in a pitch-black theater.
"Vol. 2," of course, was originally intended to be the back half of a single "Kill Bill," and you can tell where Tarantino has stretched the material to fit the new running time. The padding shows -- some of the early scenes go on a beat too long -- but with the arrival of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Bill's one-eyed troubleshooter, the film kicks into overdrive. The scene in which the two women finally settle their differences is a brilliantly sustained cadenza of creative mayhem -- it's ecstatic, resourceful, and edited with a sense of timing that leaves your jaw stuck to the floor. You could take the sequence out, offer it whole to the Academy, and it would win the best short film Oscar.
"Vol. 1" was ingenious mayhem, too, but it burned its fingers on decadence. The new film succeeds by stirring up the embers of what once passed between the Bride and Bill, and by, startlingly, exploring the no-man's-land of the Bride's matriarchal impulses. There's a lulu of a flashback involving an interrupted hit, a home pregnancy test, and two lady assassins staring down the barrel of the work/motherhood dilemma. Better yet, the sequence that opened "Vol. 1" -- when Vivica A. Fox's character was killed in front of her daughter and parents in the audience felt their stomachs fall away -- has its very appropriate bookend in "Vol. 2." I will say no more.
Other than to burble happily over the random elements Tarantino ladles into his neon mojito: Johnny Cash songs and Japanese baby-cart samurai films; Samuel L. Jackson's cameo as a former session man for every soul group who ever recorded and Gordon Liu's extended sequence as a kung fu sage with a flowing white beard; Elle's scholarly description of the effects of black mamba toxin on the central nervous system and the way the Bride staggers from a premature grave like a golem having a bad hair day. Carradine and Hannah reclaim their careers with ferocity, but Thurman's work is mighty in heart and deed, and she deserves whatever awards the brave dare to throw at her.
If you had chopped "Pulp Fiction" in two, the first half might have looked like the work of a freakishly gifted undertaker, too. Jackson's monologue at the end of that 1993 film gave the movie the exhausted moral weight it needed to matter, and so do the final scenes of "Kill Bill, Vol. 2." "You're not a worker bee," Bill reminds the woman who left him to live a boring normal life and whom he tried to murder for it. "You're a renegade killer bee."
He's right, but he forgets that there are different ways of being a renegade, and one of them is caring about other people. Quentin Tarantino knows it, and in this movie he risks admitting it. That sounds an awful lot like maturity, but whatever you do, don't tell him that.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.