Uma Thurman doesn't get nailed to a cross in Kill Bill Vol. 2, but writer-director Quentin Tarantino runs her battered character, called the Bride, through a gauntlet that is gory enough to make Mel Gibson flinch. No matter. You'll thrill to the action, savor the tasty dialogue and laugh like bloody hell. Tarantino has done more than continue the revenge tale he started in Vol. 1 — the Bride wants payback after being left for dead in her wedding dress by Bill (David Carradine) and four other killers in his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which she was once queen bee. Vol. 2 ties the events of Vol. 1 together, just like The Return of the King did for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You watch and think, "I get it now." Tarantino has made the hottest mix tape in the history of cinema. Like a master DJ, he samples every lowdown, B-movie genre that formed him, from kung fu and samurai flicks to anime and spaghetti westerns, then filters it through his imagination to create something totally Tarantino: a blast of pure movie oxygen.
Vol. 2 dives into emotional waters merely skimmed in the brilliant exercise that was the first film. For those who think dividing Bill in half was a sucker punch to make us pay for the same film twice, I can only say that the sum of both films is what makes Kill Bill a triumph. I'd prefer four hours of untamed Tarantino to one film edited into a multiplex-friendly two hours.
OK, so where did Vol. 1 leave off? The Bride traveled to Tokyo to battle O-Ren Ishii (the sublime Lucy Liu) and to Pasadena, California, to slaughter Vernita (Vivica A. Fox), two of the five assassins who wiped out her wedding-rehearsal party in a chapel in El Paso, Texas. The Bride was pregnant with Bill's baby when he shot her in the head and put her in a coma for four years. The last words of Vol. 1 came in a question posed by Bill: "Is she aware her daughter is still alive?"
That's the bait. Vol. 2 begins with the Bride looking glam in a top-down convertible, addressing the audience like an avenging angel out of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama: "When I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill."
That's the hook. But first, Tarantino takes us back to that wedding chapel to show us the events before the massacre. The Bride is marrying an outsider, running from her old life. Then Bill shows up at the rehearsal, playing a flute and turning on the charm. "How did you find me?" asks the Bride with a grin. "I'm the man," says Bill, grinning back. And so he is. Carradine — reduced to a disembodied voice in Vol. 1 — owns the screen this time and is flat-out sensational in a role once intended for Warren Beatty. Bill is a pimp of death with a long line of protegees. Carradine, the hero of the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, invests this villain with a purring, seductive danger. He and the sizzling Thurman make the sexual tension between Bill and the Bride palpable. This is a love story lit by flashes of vivid violence. Tarantino, stingy with dialogue in the action-mad Vol. 1, gives the actors words they can feast on, full of sassy wit, as in the way the Bride introduces Bill to her groom. No fair telling how.
Vol. 2 keeps popping us with surprises, including the Bride's fight training under the cruel tutelage of Pei Mei, the white-bearded monk played by Chinese legend Gordon Liu. You might want to remember the five-point exploding-heart trick. Tarantino, working in tandem with martial-arts adviser Yuen Woo-Ping, keeps the action coming like gangbusters as the must-own soundtrack booms with his favorite musical influences, including Ennio Morricone's haunting theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Charlie Feathers going all rockabilly on "Can't Hardly Stand It."
The bonus this time is that the actors hold their own against the flying swords and fists of fury. Michael Madsen is killer good as Budd, Bill's beloved kid brother, who mistakenly thinks he can keep the Bride down by burying her alive. And Daryl Hannah mesmerizes as the eye-patch-wearing Elle Driver, the Bride's replacement in Bill's heart, not to mention a tough opponent in a showstopping catfight. Of course, all roads in Kill Bill lead to the Bride's face-off with Bill and the daughter she didn't know she had. Bill puts their kid to sleep with videos of Shogun Assassin. In a lovely touch, the Bride looks pleased. But there is hell to pay. Thurman gives an electrifying performance that busts your chops and breaks your heart with no mercy. Tarantino wouldn't have it any other way. With Kill Bill, both volumes, he wants to take us on a wild ride into the dirty fun of movies and do it so artfully that we want to return to the film to shake out its secrets. It's a bold swing, and Tarantino knocks it out of the park.