The Bill Comes Due

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The first one, or the first half, inspired moral arbiters to tabulate the body count. Sober souls went all tremulous at the prospect of the sequel. Now Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, which earned $70 million at the domestic box office and $100 million abroad, is joined by Vol. 2--not so much a sequel to the story as the completion of a chapter.

It's about the Bride (Uma Thurman), a hit woman who had been "jetting around the world killing human beings and being paid vast sums of money" as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — DIVAS for short. In Vol. 1 she went straight, got left for dead in the slaughter of her wedding party and, years later, began to take revenge on the killers: the rest of the DIVAS and their charismatic boss, Bill (David Carradine). Vol. 2 finishes the tale as the Bride tracks down Bill's brother Budd (Michael Madsen) and one-eyed Elle (Daryl Hannah) before a last chat with her old mentor, lover and would-be murderer.


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There's enough blood here to appease the Passion of the Christ crowd, plus a nifty catfight in a trailer, a virtuoso buried-alive scene and some Old Testament retribution (an eye for an eye). But Vol. 2 reduces the casualties and gentles down the mood. You get less kill, more Bill. The first was show, this is tell — anecdotes at 10 paces. Of course, this being a Tarantino film, the conversations are as long and lurid and finely choreographed as the martial-arts set pieces. (The auteur is a bit of a diva himself: he loves arias, visual and verbal.) So you get a lecture on the toxic properties of the black mamba snake and a disquisition on the psychological duality of Superman.

Vol. 1 was, at heart, a movie about movies — a whirlwind graduate course in pulp-film culture. Vol. 2 also boasts some scenes that will have cultists attaching mental footnotes: flicked references to John Ford's The Searchers and the Jackie Chan — Michelle Yeoh Supercop, as well as a rehabilitation of Pei Mei, a.k.a. White Eyebrow, a villainous character from '70s Hong Kong action films. Here he's a stern but endearing teacher (played with majestic comic brio by the legendary Gordon Liu). You'll also make the Kung Fu connection. That was the '70s TV series that made Carradine a star; he won the role over a transplanted Hong Konger named Bruce Lee, who went home to launch the worldwide martial-arts craze.

For all the video-nerd one-upmanship, Vol. 2 is a relationship movie, a character study. It focuses on a handful of ornery but ordinary folks — the three remaining killers — and the flashes of rancor, jealousy, ennui and humor that illuminate their lives in the moments before the Bride tries to end them. The two brothers even achieve a reflective acceptance of their guilt. As Budd tells Bill, "That woman deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die." A pause. "Then again, so does she." Well, nobody's perfect.

Neither is Vol. 2. Its beguiling actors are urged to take their time delivering lines. (Does anyone in real life speak as slowly as everyone does in movies?) There's little suspense as to who will be alive at the end — just the poignancy of bad guys waiting to get a taste of what they have so often dished out.

The cool twist is that the females are deadlier than the males. The deadliest is the newly righteous, sword-wielding Bride, whom Thurman invests with a bracing grit and poise. The Bride's final at-home with Bill has the threat of imminent violence; nothing is spookier than watching Carradine, who can steal a scene without leaving fingerprints, make a sandwich for a 4-year-old. But the face-off is laced with the melancholy melody of a sundered couple reminding themselves why they were together.

The combined Kill Bill speaks volumes, but it doesn't tell the whole saga. How about a prequel, detailing the DIVAS' formation and exploits? Or a sequel, since one of our heroine's enemies has survived and is keeping an eye out for her? This borderline-Chekhovian episode should not be the end of the epic. But if it is, enjoy the frissons in a theater near you. Then in a few months sit down in front of the DVD player and watch both parts of a gargantuanly entertaining double feature.