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‘Kill Bill: Vol 2’ is an indulgent letdown

Uma Thurman's performance, which showcases her strength and agility, is the best thing about this sequel. By John Hartl

When Miramax decided to release Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” in two parts, the company knew what it was doing. Four hours would not only have been too much Tarantino in a single dose; it might have revealed that the movie sets up a tantalizing premise and then fails to follow through.

It is now clear that “Vol. 1,” released late last year, had most of the entertaining moments: Lucy Liu’s bossy invitation to question boardroom logic (a speech that’s as clever as anything in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”), Uma Thurman’s ferociously funny showdown with Vivica A. Fox (still the high point of the entire movie), and a spectacularly staged martial-arts finale in a glassy Tokyo nightclub.

“Vol. 2,” which was scheduled to open in February but got delayed a couple of months, is a 135-minute marathon of self-indulgence (that’s 25 minutes longer than “Vol. 1”). It’s stuffed with overripe performances, long and portentous scenes that go nowhere, and mindless in-jokes from Tarantino the former video-store clerk. (One of Tarantino’s favorite Roy Rogers movies shows up on television, a poster for Charles Bronson’s “Mr. Majestyk” dominates one scene, and the shortcomings of “Superman” and “Spiderman” are discussed.)

Much of it seems like a sadistic assault on the audience. If you’re at all claustrophobic, you may prefer to cower in the lobby during a premature burial scene in which Michael Madsen nails Thurman into a coffin, lowers her into a grave and shovels dirt on her. For what seems an eternity, the screen goes dark; the absence of visuals emphasizes the sounds of dirt falling and Thurman struggling. It’s excruciating.

Madsen plays Budd, the brother of Bill (David Carradine), the treacherous one-time lover of Beatrix Kiddo (Thurman), who has sworn to murder him. “Vol. 2” opens with the wedding massacre that sets her on her quest. Also on her hit list are the drunken Budd and the lethal Elle (Daryl Hannah), who wears an eye patch and uses snakes as surprise weapons.

If anything holds this thing together, it’s Thurman, who was impressive in “Vol. 1” and becomes even more commanding in “Vol. 2.” The first film emphasized her physical prowess, at the expense of character development. This one goes deeper than swordplay, or at least as deep as Tarantino will allow her to go. Where Beatrix’s vengeful feelings are concerned, there’s still an element of the put-on.

This self-consciousness extends to nearly every aspect of the film. The music and camera movements in the wedding scene deliberately recall “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Carradine invokes his “Kung Fu” television series in an extended episode about Beatrix’s visit to a Chinese kung fu master (Gordon Liu). The cinematographer, Robert Richardson, does an artful job of mixing black-and-white sequences (the wedding looks especially glorious) with full color episodes, but it’s often style for the sake of style.

Perhaps only Tarantino’s most devoted fans can appreciate what he’s attempted here. For non-believers, “Kill Bill (Vol. 2)” could be just as empty an experience as “The Passion of the Christ.”