Reel Rumbles #34: “Kill Bill Volume 1” vs. “Kill Bill Volume 2”
No one carves up genre movies like Quentin Tarantino. From Pulp Fiction to Inglourious Basterds, this video store geek turned writer/director has been responsible for some of the most iconic and entertaining cinema of the last two decades. Perhaps the films most indicative of Tarantino’s oft-imitated style – the non-linear storylines, aestheticization of violence, long scenes of pop-culture laced dialogue and copious references to other movies new and old – are the Kill Bill films; two blood-soaked sagas of murder, vengeance and betrayal. Originally intended as a single film, a four-hour runtime forced Tarantino to slice his movie in two. The result were two films remarkably different in style and tone; the highly stylized and action focused Volume 1 plays as an homage to Japanese samurai films, while the dialogue heavy Volume 2 is clearly influenced by Spaghetti Westerns and Chinese martial arts films. Yet both films are undeniably the work of the one and only Quentin Tarantino.
Since their release, the movies’ dual status has often been discussed, fueled by Tarantino’s promise of an eventual re-edit and re-release that would combine the two halves into a whole. Is Kill Bill a single film? And if not, which volume is the superior one? In March of this year, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles screened a 247 minute combined version of the film, entitled Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. That got us here at Flickchart thinking; what better time for Reel Rumbles to host a bloody battle of our own? Presenting… Kill Bill Volume 1 vs. Kill Bill Volume 2: these two warriors have unfinished business.
Round One: Story
Story might be the category where it is hardest to separate the two films. After all, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are telling the same story, one largely inspired by the 1973 Japanese film Lady Snowblood. Uma Thurman plays “The Bride”, a former assassin who attempted to leave her life of crime after falling pregnant only to be gunned down at her wedding rehearsal by her former friends and their employer, the eponymous “Bill”. Awakening from a coma after four years, she swears vengeance against the killers who put her there, and proceeds to go on what the movie advertisements referred to as “a roaring rampage of revenge”.
Structurally, Volume 1 may be the more interesting of the two movies, opening with an incredible jolt of energy as our unnamed protagonist breaks into the home of a Pasadena homemaker and engages her in one of the most brutal fist fights ever put to film. Flashbacks within flashbacks reveal her back-story and intent, and we watch as she procures herself a sword (courtesy of a cross-franchise appearance by Sonny Chiba as a descendant of Hattori Hanzo, a character Chiba played in the eighties Japanese television series, Shadow Warriors) and proceeds to take down the first two women on her list. In many ways, Volume 1 is a movie about the quest for revenge. We see via the “Origin of O-Ren” chapter that Lucy Liu‘s character carried out her own revenge plot, and the film even sets up another potential revenge story in the character of Nikki, Venita Green’s daughter.
By comparison, Volume 2 deals more closely with the nature and moral implications of revenge. Bill, never seen in Volume 1, is humanized throughout his appearances in the follow up film. Likewise, his brother Budd (played by Michael Madsen) is perhaps the only one of The Bride’s targets who acknowledges his own guilt for the part he played in her attempted murder. “We deserve to die” he says. “But then again, so does she”. Throughout Volume 2, as an audience we begin to question whether The Bride’s quest is justified. Volume 2 does contain a few sequences that feel a little superfluous, such as a detour to South America to dig up information of Bill’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, the final confrontation, in which the film delivers an emotional sucker-punch, sheds an entirely new light on both Bill and The Bride as characters and once again throws viewer loyalties into disarray.
In spite of the strengths and weaknesses in the story of each film, it ultimately seems a little unfair to rank one over the other when neither makes any sense without its counterpart. It is only when combined that Kill Bill amounts to a fulfilling story, and so the result of this round is, anticlimactically, a tie.
Round Two: Direction
Visually speaking, the Kill Bill films are probably Tarantino’s most ambitious. Rarely constrained by convention, with Volume 1 Tarantino throws everything he can think of at the wall, and miraculously, it all sticks. Employing black and white, split screen, different coloured filters and a Japanese anime sequence, Volume 1 is a bright, frenetic and spectacularly violent affair. It also introduces something entirely new into Tarantino’s repertoire: action. While all his prior films have been violent, they have mostly been concerned with dialogue. Kill Bill Volume 1 on the other hand is nearly wall to wall action and ends one of the most extensive, complicated, meticulously choreographed and morbidly beautiful fight sequences ever put to film.
Volume 2 is the much more subdued and less bombastic of the series. This film is much more concerned with plot, and as such Tarantino is not offered quite the same opportunity to show off his stylistic muscles. That being said, the movie does contain perhaps the best composed and most atmospheric moment in either film, in a terrifying, claustrophobic sequence that sees The Bride buried alive. A cleverly constrained swordfight between The Bride and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) is also brilliantly crafted, but at the end of the day it’s hard to compete with the pure aesthetic thrill of Volume 1. Never before has blood popped so vividly on the screen, and Volume 1 could take this bout on the strength of the House of Blue Leaves sequence alone. 10-8
Round Three: Script
All Tarantino films bear his signature dialogue. His writing flows from the lips of his characters with a fluidity and glibness that is second to none, and since 1992 has inspired a legion of imitators. The scripts of both Kill Bill films – inspired by the dialogue of Asian cinema – are filled with talk of loyalty and honor, but never to the point that it feels unnecessarily campy or overblown. Just as the action resembles a violent ballet, the dialogue in Kill Bill is the stuff of grizzly ancient oriental poetry.
That being said, Volume 1 certainly goes in to this round with a disadvantage. With its entire second half dedicated to a single, spectacular action set-piece, the dialogue of this film is spoken with swords, not words. Set largely in Japan, a considerable portion of Kill Bill Volume 1 is in Japanese, a precursor in some ways to the director’s language obsessed Inglourious Basterds. A scene near the beginning featuring Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw features some strong dialogue, as does the humorous exchange between Thurman and Chiba in his run down sushi restaurant. Still, Kill Bill Volume 1 might be the one movie Tarantino has made where the writing isn’t the best thing about it.
Volume 2, with its more reflective themes and less eclectic pace, features much more of the dialogue that has made its writer/director a household name. The opening scene, a flashback to The Bride’s wedding day, introduces audiences to David Carradine‘s Bill for the first time. The various conversations between Bill and his protégé throughout Volume 2 are not as stylized or pop-culture heavy as the dialogue in, for example, Reservoir Dogs, but it is certainly no less memorable. Some have criticized the final sequence, in which Bill and The Bride fight out their differences largely in conversation (the actual fight is shockingly brief, a distinctive and no doubt intentional counterpoint to the drawn out and bloody climax of Volume 1). Personally however, I found the discussions on life and death, love and loyalty and of course the mythology of Superman superbly written and full of surprising pathos. For all his talents as a writer, Tarantino films rarely feature much emotion – but Kill Bill Volume 2 is a striking exception.
While the dialogue in both films is naturally very good, the second film simply has more to go on. If Kill Bill Volume 1 demonstrates Tarantino’s previously unseen talents as a director of action, Kill Bill Volume 2 proves yet again what a masterful writer he is. 10-9.
Round Four: Performances
While Tarantino’s earlier works Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were dominated by men, with Jackie Brown he introduced us to his first female protagonist, and has been empowering women ever since. Uma Thurman’s portrayal of a powerful, samurai-sword wielding mother is one of the strongest female characters ever put to screen. Thurman tackles every scene with a combination of dogged physicality, steely-eyed determinism, and strictly guarded emotion. Rarely do feelings of anger or fear overtake her in her all-consuming quest for revenge. That is, until the final act of Volume 2, where a sudden revelation transforms her character in a way she could not possibly have foreseen. Thurman’s work here is a career best both in terms of her commitment to the role (over the course of the two movies she sees herself covered in blood, flung across rooms and buried alive in a tiny wooden coffin) and her on-screen performance.
There is nary a false note rung by any of the supporting actors in either film. In Volume 1, the big players are Lucy Liu as the remorseless Oren-Ishii, backed up on either side by the icy Julie Dreyfus as Sofie Fatale, and the terrifying Chiaki Kuriyama as the sadistic, psychotic Gogo Yubari. Vivica A. Fox meanwhile, no doubt on the specific instructions of Tarantino, channels blaxploitation actress (and Jackie Brown star) Pam Grier in her small but important role as Vernita Green. However, once again we must concede that the performances in Volume 2 carry a bit more dramatic weight; on top of Thurman’s excellent work in the coffin sequence as well as the second film’s climax, David Carradine and Michael Madsen both offer strong emotional performances as brothers filled with regret. There are also fun, cheesy performances to be had from Daryl Hannah as one eyed killer Elle Driver, and Gordon Liu as kung fu master Pai Mei.
Of course the most impressive performance in either film actually comes from someone whose face we never get to see. Tarantino has previously been a proponent of stunt performers getting due credit, and no discussion of Kill Bill would be complete without acknowledging the incredible work of the films leading stuntwoman, New Zealander Zoë Bell. Doubling for Thurman over the course of both films, Bell is responsible for most of The Bride’s mind-blowing stunts, including the unforgettable fight sequence at the end of Volume 1. Without her dedication and willingness to put her body on the line, these films could not exist, and Tarantino is on record as saying Bell “played The Bride just as much as Uma”.
The actors and stunt-performers throughout Kill Bill all do amazing work. Like with the script therefore, the winner of this round is decided simply because Volume 2 offers its cast just that little bit more to do. Advantage Volume 2, 10-9
And The Winner Is…
The Kill Bill movies hold a very close place to my heart. They were my first experience with the work of Quentin Tarantino, and were amongst the first films (along with Christopher Nolan‘s Memento) that made me realize that cinema can simultaneously be art and entertainment. Where this battle is ultimately decided is distinctiveness. Volume 2 is a brilliant film, but one can’t help but feel that it’s long, drawn-out scenes of dialogue – although excellent – make it in some ways closer to the rest of the director’s body of work. Volume 1 on the other hand, is something jarringly, stupendously new. Rarely will you see a movie so stylistically ambitious or unbridled by convention. The film resembles living, breathing, bleeding pop-art, and as good as the follow up is, it can’t quite top the beautiful mayhem of its predecessor. The winner by a scalp: Kill Bill Volume 1.