Contains extensive spoilers, sorry. Don't read it if you haven't seen it.
Okay, let's be up front about this. Kill Bill Volume 2 isn't as exciting as Kill Bill Volume 1. It sounds harsh, but in all fairness, there's very little that's as exciting as Kill Bill Volume 1. It's slower. I don't want to be sword-hungry action guy, but the flawless violence of the first film is nowhere near as present here; though the film does feature one of the best fight scenes since Raising Arizona, Tarantino has a different purpose here. Where only rating concerns and running time constrained the balletic thrill of Volume 1, Tarantino himself decides here that the impact should be different, and we understand it early on. As the Massacre At Two Pines edges closer, as Bill makes his ominous first appearance, as Tarantino has always excelled at making us antsy even before scenes in which we know exactly what will happen - as through Pulp Fiction, for instance, when the film so often leads up to what we have already seen - we might not be blamed (especially if we have recently seen Volume 1 [as intended]) for gearing up for a little of that same violence, even if we know the result to be a little one-sided, even if we have seen it opening both movies and played out in a variety of scenes in the first volume. When the Fox Force Five - sorry, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad - makes their entrance, they approach not in a serious dramatic manner but a knowing one, almost a giddy one, and suddenly Tarantino goes the other way: the camera tilts up and to the side, and though I don't know why it's always got to be Madsen, it unmistakeably recalls that same tilt in Reservoir Dogs, documented pretty extensively as causing a fair amount of anxiety in viewers, many of whom later recounted seeing it differently. The gist of the thousands of words written about that scene is that viewers were far more disturbed than they would have been by keeping the camera on the action. Kill Bill 2 both bears that out and calls it into doubt on different occasions; this first tilt is the clue that the pain Tarantino will inflict over the course of volume 2 is more anguish than abattoir.
The eventual disposition of California Mountain Snake's eye might elicit both ewwws and ooze, but in the long run it's more a shot for visual effect and squirming purposes than one that will likely make any real psychological impact. Bill and B.B.'s recounting of the goldfish story, by contrast, seems to have some emotional impact in its distanced recounting, for all involved characters and ideally for the audience as well. The sticking point, and it's a rough one, is the shot that now opens two movies, of the then-Bride shot down by her baby. It's graphic (that is to say, it's violent, but more that it's very uncomfortably onscreen, and though DVD freeze-frame may not eventually bear this out, it seems much more so in the second volume), but the inverse-effect theory does not work here: it's the most emotionally painful moment of the film, and this in a film where the protagonist is more battered than Job, or Jude Law in Cold Mountain.
If Tarantino beats up Thurman pretty badly in the first one, he downright tortures her here; it may be a little less physical and more psychological than Vol. 1, but so too is the entire film, and overall it makes more sense than just as a marketing tool to cut the film in half. The pace is decidedly different, and it feels like Tarantino's intentions are different as well.
Structurally, it's remarkably similar, something like: revenge action, quandary, extended flashback, return to quandary, extrication, revenge action, leadup, confrontation, climax, denouement. So why does it feel so much slower? Other than the substitution of conversation for extravagant swordfight in the leadup segment, it's a bit hard to say, and maybe it would have been more natural in a single four-hour sitting; certainly, audience fatigue in the third and fourth hours would mirror closely Black Mamba's fatigue and cause us to project onto her a little more distinctly the doubt and hesitation that seem so much a part of this installment - maybe that doubt and hesitation is what this installment is about, causing us to consider the peculiar cross-purposes of the second thoughts she harbored four years ago and the ones she might like to harbor now, were it not for the steely resolve with which we have come to understand her titular quest - whether, in fact, whether we are more or less human than she, whether we demand that same revenge or would allow her to soften, and which of those is, in fact, more human.
So how steely is that resolve? Her list is incomplete. When she leaves California Mountain Snake alive - albeit not in great shape - is it a wavering of will? It doesn't particularly seem that way, given the circumstances, which we may even view as worse-than-death, given the unpleasantness of the matter (at which we thrill to the sound of an entire moviegoing nation simultaneously thinking oh, shit!), but if Black Mamba is content to let it stand, the question remains: why not kill her? The list was quite clearly labelled DEATH LIST, and if we are being sticklers for the letter rather than the spirit of the list, Black Mamba's decision, though suitably cruel, removes her path through the film as a literal-minded march through the DEATH LIST and allows her some freedom to improvise. It may distance us from the notion of samurai honor and the repayment of blood debt, but it also raises the stakes for the Final Chapter. Obviously her commitment to revenge, while pretty darn serious, is not complete and literal-minded, and for the first time this will allow Tarantino to introduce the hesitation. The pieces seem to be present. Years ago she was able to give up her killing ways, convinced by the prospect of motherhood; why not again? With motherhood before her even more clearly, it is a tricky point that the audience is more aware of this idea than she is; we all had the same momentary thought about whether she couldn't give up her revenge quest for a life of domestic tranquility with Bill and little B.B., but Black Mamba has no such thought.
So why the truth serum? Not from a filmic point of view, but within the story, something begins to feel off in this section, and it's not just the Malcolm McLaren Zombies cover. Either answer would have worked. If Bill asks if Black Mamba enjoyed killing, and she says no, nothing is gained and nothing lost. If she says yes, it would be no shock, and indeed it is not. Why should it be? We don't especially need Bill to tell us - nor does she need Bill to tell her - that she is a killer. It might even be a little misleading. The ostensible reason for a truth-serum scene, dramatically, is that it's the only way to cut to real truth, in this case the only way for Black Mamba to reveal something truthful to Bill and more importantly, as Bill points out, to herself. But even if she hadn't realized until this moment that she kills for enjoyment and because it's somehow intrinsically in her character, it lessens the effect of her choice to fight Bill despite possible reasons for not doing so - which, again, are more posed by the audience themselves than by Black Mamba. Tarantino, though, knows these reasons are there, and for her to decide to proceed - unslowed by new revelations - with her self-imposed mission must be for reasons other than a natural murderousness. Revenge epics are revenge epics for a reason; Black Mamba is not a special-forces op rescuing the President, nor is she even on a quest to retrieve her daughter, though she easily could have been. Even as Vol. 2 strays from its samurai code roots - so clear in Vol. 1, as when Hattori Hanzo agrees to break his pacifist blood oath due to his obligation to the world - the viewer must be cognizant that domestic tranquility is certainly not an option, has not been since El Paso, and that Black Mamba's motivation is not murderousness but single-mindedness, not practicality or convenience but revenge. To change her to a thrill killer, then, strays wide of that purpose, and we must accept her enjoyment of the killings as nearly incidental, not as the reason for her killings but rather this: that her unwilling understanding that she enjoys killing is the price she must pay for completing her quest. It is visited upon her by Bill not because he wants the information but because he suspects it and wants her to know it, and this is an insult to her samurai honor: it cheapens her revenge. Vengeance is not to be enjoyed; it is to be conducted, and not with glee but with grim satisfaction. To enjoy it questions its objectivity and its cleanliness, and to destroy its purity in this way is to invalidate all but its results.
Still, we were warned. The Black Mamba is death incarnate. In some ways, it is the best name for Beatrix, and the one used through this review. True, she was called The Bride by the media - much like her near-death was called The El Paso Wedding Chapel Massacre - but neither name necessarily fits. This is Bill's point, and it's hard to disregard: that she was never quite The Bride, that death incarnate in a dress is still death incarnate, that nobody much liked The Groom, that nobody was there to sit on her side because she was a poor fit for that kind of life. She probably knew it all the time, and if she must throw off the bridal title (it's impossible to imagine her getting married, or at least getting married in a way that didn't treat marriage as a device to be used for the benefit of B.B. and escape of her own past - adopting a new, Arlenesque name not to hide from anyone but to get rid of all her rapidly piling up monikers), the movie leaves us - pretty much right at the end - with a gesture that wonders whether Beatrix was right, whom Arlene might have been, whether The Bride had any chance, whether Black Mamba or a black mamba ever had any choice, whether Bill was right, whether any of those names will matter, will haunt her, if she can pull off the unlikely switch to Mommy.