Last year, the publicity for Kill Bill: volume 1 announced the arrival of "The Fourth Film By Quentin Tarantino", smartly reminding us of that perfectly formed trio of Tarantino-helmed predecessors comprising Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, while conveniently overlooking such aggravating distractions as the half-formed gangster-horror hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (which he wrote and exec-produced) and the gruellingly unfunny comedy Four Rooms (which he unforgivably co-directed). After a lengthy break, it seemed Tarantino was back on track, focusing on the single-minded storytelling that was always his strongest suit and expanding upon the narrative panache most recently evidenced in Jackie Brown, his most satisfyingly "grown-up" movie to date.
The disappointment that Kill Bill: volume 1 turned out to be little more than an insubstantial series of eye-popping genre set pieces was tempered by the knowledge that this was only the first instalment in an unfolding epic - a blood-splattered appetiser for a weighty main course that would follow in the new year. Given that Kill Bill had originally been envisaged as a single film, only rent asunder to accommodate its unwieldy running time, there remained the tantalising possibility that Volume 2 would fill the gaping holes in character, coherence and credibility left by its predecessor. So now, with the first and second movements of Tarantino's "Fourth Film" unveiled in their respective entirety, do the numbers finally add up?
The short answer, sadly, is no. Despite a little less action and a lot more conversation, Volume 2 merely compounds the shortcomings of Volume 1, suggesting that Tarantino has completely forgotten how to do anything other than shuffle badly drawn comic-book caricatures through an array of geeky movie memorabilia moments. While Volume 1 offered some fleeting pleasures in the spectacle of Uma Thurman's battered bride beating the hell out of those who spoiled her wedding day, Volume 2 tries (and fails) to turn her into something more than just an iconic poster image - a leather-clad vision of retro martial-arts movie chic. Thus the adversarial eye candy of Lucy Liu is superseded by the heavyweight dramatic presence of Michael Madsen's Budd, revisiting the sadistic streak of Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, and by David Carradine's eponymous Bill, here taking centre stage and marking a career resurrection for the former Kung Fu star who had spent time cooling his heels in straight-to-video erotic thrillers. As for Thurman, the promise of a mother-and-daughter reunion that was dangled tantalisingly at the end of Volume 1 continues to hang sword-like over the proceedings, threatening, but somehow never managing, to up the emotional ante.
It is indicative of the dramatic failure of Kill Bill: volume 2 that it is such a painless experience. Despite deftly orchestrating a couple of nicely nasty perils for our heroine, including a nightmarishly claustrophobic live burial, Tarantino never makes us care less what happens to anybody. Instead, he jiggers away like a fidgety teenager leafing frenziedly through his beloved record collection, trying to win our affection by showing us just how many "cool" movies he can reference in a couple of hours. Along with the martial arts and spaghetti western riffs that devotees are already drearily logging on the internet, there's a string of knowing steals from movies much closer to my own heart, such as George Sluizer's Dutch thriller Spoorloos and Sam Raimi's delightful zombie romp The Evil Dead. All of these provoked a shrug of recognition and an unhelpful reminder of what I would much rather be watching instead. As for the soundtrack, it is another dazzlingly dense accumulation of aural signposts that manages to impress and depress at the same time.
Somewhere in the middle of all this navel-gazing, there's an inevitable speech about the significance of comic books, as Carradine sonorously ponders Superman's critique of the human character. The "message" is that trash culture can encapsulate great truths, but sadly Kill Bill is neither as trashy nor as "truthful" as its creator thinks, offering not a pale imitation of life, but a stale regurgitation of "art". This is depressing as hell for those of us who applauded Tarantino's coming of age in Jackie Brown. Here, he is back to his most annoyingly adolescent - talented enough to do whatever he wants, but too emotionally retarded to put away the scabby obsessions of youth. Like a scolding parent, you end up wanting to smack him round the head and tell him to pull his pants up and go get a proper job.