Sometime in the near DVD future, Kill Bill Vol. 2 will undoubtedly be reattached to the Vol. that preceded it, restoring Quentin Tarantino's fabulous, blood-and-cinema-soaked story of vengeance exacted by a wronged woman to the jumbo-size saga originally envisioned by the filmmaker. It turns out, however, to have been a canny martial-arts move of a dramaturgic kind to chop the film in two, leaving space to breathe before bringing Bill in for the kill. The pause after the electrically violent first installment, with its Asian aesthetic of spurts, slashes, extreme fashions, and an impossibly high body count, only intensifies the pleasures of this elegiac, Western- influenced companion episode; with Vol. 2, the erudition of Tarantino's audacious and triumphant project pays off emotionally.
The reward for attentively comparing and contrasting the two in memory before they're combined on home video is revelation: With the second installment, Tarantino famous as an inspired manipulator of genre, less proven as a filmmaker of soul shows his shy but ardent, cinephiliac understanding of American sentiment and yearning. Everything he knows he may have learned at the movies. But there's no denying that when it comes to communicating a certain delirious romanticism of character shaped by thousands of hours spent sitting in the dark, the artist who made this showpiece is a master.
Right from the typeface of the title credits, the urgent chug of the Bernard Herrmannized opening score, and the Hitchcockian black-and-white image of Thurman behind the wheel of a car, inter-galactic eyes gleaming as fake landscape streams behind her, Vol. 2 announces its provenance in the soil of Westerns (both spaghetti and Monument Valley) and the loners who seek justice therein. Here, finally, we learn the full story of the Massacre at Two Pines that began the saga so gruesomely the wedding-party mow-down by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that left the pregnant Bride for dead, and the connection between the Bride and her quarry. (For video clerk high-five fun, cult-cool actor and NASCAR driver Bo Svenson plays the prunish pastor.)
Here, too, we get our first sense of the power Bill has over the Bride and of David Carradine's sinewy masculinity in the role, a pop-cultural gleam burnished by memories of the star's Kung Fu years on TV. A serene scene of pre-wedding reunion between Bill and Bride is as iconic and verbally economical as any in John Ford's The Searchers. Much later, at his most potently human, Bill soliloquizes, eloquent and hip, on the qualities of Superman, unique among superheroes, while puttering around his living room.
Bill is ultimately killed that's no plot giveaway with plenty of scrapes and tussles for the Bride along the way. (The death toll is much lower and the blood spillage is contained, although there's an eyeball plucking of notable, juicy gore.) But it's the journey taken by Uma Thurman's Bride from indestructible heroine to open-hearted woman that matters and the way this strangely gold-flecked, long-limbed actress of such amphibian beauty becomes a princess warrior under her director's guidance. And it's the solidification of Carradine's Bill from phantom menace to vulnerable, life-size man that packs the emotional surprise in Vol. 2 and the delicate, controlled craziness with which Tarantino roams from joke to jolt to joy in piling on the homages.
Which brings us to Pei Mei, the great martial-arts master and theme-tying figure of Vol. 2, played by Hong Kong kung fu star Gordon Liu. It happens like this: In settling scores with Bill's washed-up brother, Budd (Reservoir Dogs alum Michael Madsen), the Bride spends some time buried alive in a coffin. The claustrophobia of interment itself is created with lovingly creepy verve and hideously good sound work. But as happened in Vol. 1, while the heroine waited for her paralyzed toe to obey her wiggle command, adversity leads to flashback. And in this case, the digression explains the Bride's essential, character-building martial-arts apprenticeship in China, back when she too was one of Bill's DiVAS.
Dictatorial and irrascible Pei Mei strokes his long, wispy white beard, leaves his magnificently winged cottonball eyebrows well enough alone, and breaks down his new pupil, unknotting every fiber of ego before discipline and training can really begin. (His greatest gift is instruction in the deadly ''Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.'') His pedagogical technique is time-honored in similar Chinese hero journeys, as universal in movie apprenticeships as the education of Rocky Balboa. But this Pei Mei, this Yoda unique to Tarantino, is also quite the blunt imp.
''Your so-called kung fu is really quite pathetic,'' he sniffs. Then he teaches the Bride to fulfill her destiny at the crossroads of East-West film influences where she now reigns.