'Kill Bill' finale sacrifices action for suspense

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Special to the Journal-World

Uma Thurman stars as the hard-to-kill Bride in Quentin Tarantino's epic finale, "Kill Bill Vol. 2."

The night after screening "Kill Bill Vol. 2," I happened upon a 1970s film called "Switchblade Sisters" on cable. It was a low-budget gang tale about female juveniles that featured a malicious blonde who sported an eye patch decorated with a butterfly.

After looking this "guilty pleasure" up on the Internet I was surprised to find that the picture was championed by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who discovered it while at his infamous video store job. This certainly explained why in his "Kill Bill" epic one of the main villains is Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), a blonde with an eye patch.

This arbitrary event really drove home the essence of Tarantino's latest work.

Here is a movie that embraces dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of these references from the director's cinematic experiences. In "Kill Bill Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2" he has assembled a pop culture pastiche of different styles and influences unlike any other film in history. Who else could comfortably fuse kung fu, spaghetti westerns, samurai, Hitchcockian thrillers, anime, blaxploitation and countless other genres that I'm not geeky enough to recognize?

With "Kill Bill Vol. 2," even those who originally dismissed "Vol. 1" as overly violent and superficial may change their tune. It's not that this latest movie is necessarily better than the first -- in terms of pure kineticism, it's decidedly weaker -- but its presence makes the entire project seem more like a cohesive artistic vision.

Whereas Tarantino broke up the action scenes with dialogue in "Vol. 1," he breaks up the dialogue scenes with action in "Vol. 2." This results in a much slower-paced affair. And even in hypnotic parleys such as the flashback to Bill (David Carradine) and the Bride (Uma Thurman) at her pre-massacre wedding rehearsal, the chatting often outstays its welcome.

Fortunately, there's one element absent from the first that is in full force here: suspense. As the Bride embarks on "what the movie advertisements call a roaring rampage" against Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that left her for dead, there are frequent edge-of-your-seat moments.

Among the most memorable is a flashback to the Bride's tutelage by a cruel Chinese martial arts master played by Gordon Liu, who has a habit of flicking his white beard as an exclamation point. She is told that he "hates Caucasians, despises Americans and has nothing but contempt for women," and the ancient (yet marvelously spry) man puts her through excruciating training.

Some of which comes in handy in the film's most tension-filled sequence when one of her enemies takes a page from Edgar Allan Poe and gives her a premature burial. Tarantino shoots these moments in total darkness with only the horrifying sounds of a backhoe dumping dirt on the casket.

It's a scene that Hitchcock would have applauded.

Movie

Kill Bill Vol. 2 ***

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Quentin Tarantino opts for more dialogue than action in his final piece of the cinematic revenge puzzle. The gifted filmmaker also adds more suspense to this installment, allowing star Uma Thurman and titular villain David Carradine to share some mesmerizing scenes together. "Vol. 2" is admittedly slow but never uninteresting.

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Now that the entire scope of both films are revealed it's easier to evaluate Thurman's performance, and she really is outstanding. The athleticism and humor she displayed in the first half is balanced by real depth of emotion in this one. Just witness how believable she is during her casket episode. She strikes a sympathetic balance between terrified, enraged and "this can't possibly be happening to me."

And what can be said about Carradine?

Simply a disembodied voice in "Vol. 1," the former star of TV's "Kung Fu" is a revelation in this entry. Bill is portrayed by Carradine as charming and sagacious yet utterly sadistic; he's a psychopath who could easily pass as a legitimate businessman.

Tarantino is a master of resurrecting an actor's stalled career -- just remember what he did for John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction" or Pam Grier and Robert Forster in "Jackie Brown." The director originally cast Warren Beatty as the titular menace, but it's hard now to imagine anyone besides Carradine in the role.

Equally hard to imagine is trying to separate "Kill Bill Vol. 1" from "Vol. 2" now that both are public. Though the union of the tandem exposes some weakness in terms of momentum, it certainly makes the whole project resonate more. The enterprise may simply be a "tale of bloody revenge" as Carradine says, but it's one that showcases Tarantino as a visionary director capable of manipulating any influence to his advantage.

See, all those years of watching tacky flicks like "Switchblade Sisters" really does pay off.

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