Revenge Stories

The Bride brings the pain in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. The audience receives it in The Punisher.

What, no family leave for assassins?

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) left me firmly of two minds: philosophically troubled by yet another bloodthirsty saga of insult and retribution, of the kind that has come to dominate world cinema; and grooving like hell on that particular specimen, as egregious an example of violence with zero redeeming social value as any ever made.

It helped that Tarantino didn’t pretend that Kill Bill had any intent besides getting people off. It wasn’t yoked to some Death Wish template featuring liberal judges and courts that can’t protect the law-abiding citizen. And it didn’t swaddle itself in Gladiator-like righteousness, its hero slaughtering everyone who needs slaughtering while remaining morally unsullied. Kill Bill,Vol. 1 was disconnected from everything but its own gleeful kineticism: Tarantino’s joy in distilling the hundreds of grind-house pictures and chopsocky videos on which he’d been weaned into one fat, beautiful, frankly masturbatory epic in which a sexy chick fights other sexy chicks with a humongous Japanese samurai sword. What was not to love?

A lot, I guess. An irresistible target because the gore was both over-the-top and 100 percent gratuitous, the movie became a litmus test on the subject of violence in movies. It will be interesting to gauge the response on that score to Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Miramax), in which the splatter has been stanched, the body count reduced (two dead, one severely maimed), and the quotient of chatter ratcheted way, way up. I won’t be surprised to hear praise for Tarantino’s mature restraint; but I think the second part is, if anything, more perverse, the emotions heightened and the narrative tricks more shocking. Tarantino is a sadistic freak—but, unlike some other filmmakers I can think of, he wears it proudly.

There’s a magnificent perversity in the tender first encounter between the Bride (Uma Thurman) and Bill (David Carradine), whose face was never seen in Volume One. It’s a flashback set in that El Paso, Texas, church in which we know the wedding party is about to be massacred. During a pause in the rehearsal, the Bride hears a familiar pan pipe and moves—lightly, with a mixture of dread and hope—through the doorway, in a shot that echos the famous final image of The Searchers (1956). Bill has come for the woman he calls Kiddo—we now know because her name is “Beatrix Kiddo.” Beatrix was Bill’s No. 1 assassin until she fled, pregnant with his baby, in search of a quieter life. But she’s still mad about Bill: Their rapport is silly, joshing, sweet; she is even persuaded that he has come to bid her a loving goodbye. And, in a way, he has.

Tarantino famously courted Warren Beatty for Bill, which would have been a heavenly piece of casting because of the childlike narcissism under Beatty’s womanizing that you just know could spill over into monstrousness. But Carradine is wonderful, too: intense but soft-spoken and preternaturally cool, his weathered face held aloft by that triumphant Carradine-family bone structure. His Bill is a more credible version of Charlie in Charlie’s Angels—the man who beds women, trains women to fight, sends women out to do battle, and regards women as his property. In a male revenge movie, the man avenges his feminization by “nailing” his adversaries; in a chick revenge movie like Kill Bill, the woman avenges pretty much the same thing, but the feminist thrust can make the scenario feel a lot less Neanderthal—and misogynistic—than it really is. That strikes me as a good reason to seek out chick revenge movies.

For all its relative subtlety, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 remains a cartoon: Its wit is broadsword rather than rapier, and its motives are elemental. The banter is second-tier Tarantino: a cut above his imitators, but below the standard set by Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. There’s a speech of Bill’s about Superman comics that strikes me as distinctly sub par (it has to do with Clark Kent representing Superman’s contemptuous view of humanity), and the best line in the movie is probably, “Bitch, you have no future.” But Tarantino is in peak form at playing with your expectations: setting you up for one thing and blindsiding you with something else. I loved Michael Madsen’s ex-assassin, Budd, a drunk who seems to have grown passive and fatalistic and to have lost his taste for killing. He has some surprising moments. Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed hellion has a comeuppance that’s worthy of her—if not quite as classic as her death scene in Blade Runner (1982). And Beatrix’s 4-year-old daughter is neither angel nor devil but something tantalizingly in between. Tarantino serves up a parody of ‘70s Hong Kong martial-arts training flicks that had me howling at its tacky zoom-ins and zoom-outs, and at Gordon Liu’s huffily sadistic master, with flyaway eyebrows and a long white beard he whips over his shoulder like a scarf.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is in a different league than The Punisher (Warner Bros.), also opening this week: a sickeningly manipulative, by-the-numbers revenge movie in which the presumed-dead hero (Thomas Jane) comes back to get the people who wiped out his father, mother, wife, and little son. It’s a bloodbath with one thing on its mind: Making you go, “Yeah! Punish ‘em! Make ‘em die slowly!” and then, “Yeah! He nailed ‘em! He nailed ‘em all.” It’s a thuggish Steven Seagal movie with the Marvel Comics imprimatur—shameful.

Neither of these pictures, though, has the moral horror of The Limey (1999), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in which a father’s quest for revenge on the man who killed his daughter ends up leading straight back to him. And neither, needless to say, is a patch on the greatest of our revenge dramas, Hamlet, the story of a first-rate intellectual who finds himself trapped in a third-rate revenge play and can’t quite get in sync with it: Hamlet is an attempt to dramatize the conflict between our primitive urge for vengeance—sometimes adaptive, more often grotesquely self-perpetuating, and poisonous to the social order—and our more evolved “modern” consciousness. Four hundred years later, we’re still trying to equal it. Kill Bill,Volumes 1 and 2 are great fun, but when they’re over there’s nothing to make us question our addiction to violent fantasies of retribution. The whole is a little less than the sum of its volumes.