Kill Bill: Vol. 1 vs. Vol. 2: Which Is Better?

Two Den of Geek editors grab their Hanzo swords and meet upon the snow-covered field of battle to debate which Kill Bill is better.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Photo: Miramax

Quentin Tarantino does not view Kill Bill as two separate films. That should be acknowledged upfront as fair. After all, it is this detail which allows Tarantino the ability to claim Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as his ninth instead of 10th film (thereby delaying any obligatory early retirements). And to be sure, Tarantino shot Kill Bill as one epic vision that was only encouraged to be broken up by, ahem, Harvey Weinstein while Tarantino was finishing up principal photography.

So while the story was released as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2, they’re two sides of the same tale. Be that as it may, there’s no denying that they’re two incredibly different sides. Whether a creative choice made in post-production after realizing he had hours more of running time to play with, or because the filmmaker was already at his most indulgent when he thought he could compress the material he’d shot into a single commercial running time, the two volumes of Kill Bill feel distinctly separate from one another with separate pacings, rhythms, and even visual aesthetics. Even their diverging genre influences and the color palettes are as separated as East and West.

Hence even if the filmmaker might see one film, most viewers see two decidedly different experiences that compose a greater whole. There is the wild spectacle of Vol. 1 and the emotional violence of Vol. 2. But which one is better? Well, a couple of ronin editors at Den of Geek have agreed to meet on the field of honor to determine that for good and all.

David Crow: Alec, we should first begin by acknowledging that drawing this line between the two volumes is silly and unnecessary. But then again, so much of what occurs in Kill Bill might be described as silly and unnecessary. It doesn’t stop it from being sublimely entertaining. And when I think of being entertained by Tarantino’s most gargantuan feast of images and words, I’m always taken back to the experience’s earliest and best courses: Volume 1.

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While there is plenty to love in Volume 2, the iconography that springs to most folks’ minds when they hear “Kill Bill” is of Uma Thurman clad in Bruce Lee’s banana-yellow tracksuit from Game of Death, katana in hand as she stares down the entire might of the Crazy 88. Granted that is just one of many of the slick images in Tarantino’s slickest 111 minutes on celluloid. There is also Lucy Liu assuming the water stance in a snow-strewn garden; Darryl Hannah whistling Bernard Hermann’s otherwise forgotten theme from Twisted Nerve as she stalks the Bride in the greatest De Palma montage that De Palma never made; and just the fact that gore was so spectacularly over the top that large portions of the movie needed to be rendered in black and white to avoid an NC-17 rating. (Seriously, you still laugh when you see the fire hydrant of red corn syrup erupting from Julie Dreyfus’ “wound,” right?)

Kill Bill: Volume 1 might very well be the apex of QT cool… and Volume 2 certainly marked a decline. Sure, the second volume features emotional resonance, but Kill Bill is all about style, and it was never more stylish than in the half that could spare seven minutes for an anime backstory of O-Ren Ishii.

Alec Bojalad: I already feel terrible. David, you did such a great job of setting this up as a respectful disagreement amongst friends and I immediately have to ruin it. Because, for as great as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is (Tarantino isn’t capable of making anything less than that), I actually don’t think it even needs to exist! Kill Bill: Vol. 2 captures the entirety of the emotional and visual spectrum that a single, unified Kill Bill film would have. And it does so without use of its gorgeous, yet extraneous, first half. 

As you said, Vol. 1 contains some undeniably striking imagery. Who among us isn’t delighted to see human beings turned into fleshy blood sprinklers? But when I think back on my favorite moments in either Kill Bill film, I’m inevitably drawn to the quieter moments of Vol 2. Like the best Tarantino efforts, Vol. 2 is such a vibrantly chatty film. Beatr…excuse me, The Bride has a lot more to say to her victims this time around and the conversations are pure pulpy poetry.

It’s also more of a self-contained, at times literally claustrophobic experience. The world of Vol. 1 is vast and chaotic (shout out to O-Ren Ishii’s anime backstory) while significant portions of Vol. 2 take place in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, and with our lead actually buried alive in a coffin. All of this is not even to mention that Vol. 2 has an ending, and Vol. 1, by definition, does not. I agree that Vol. 1 provides more spectacle while Vol. 2 provides more emotional resonance. Perhaps I’m mistaking personal preference by objective analysis (wouldn’t be the first time certainly) but wouldn’t we want emotion over spectacle 10 times out of 10?

David: You know, Alec, you’re right insomuch as we can agree on one thing: you should feel terrible! Suggesting that Kill Bill: Vol. 2 does not need Vol. 1 is akin to arguing that the catharsis felt in Return of the King makes Frodo and Sam stepping out from the Shire in Fellowship of the Ring irrelevant. While Vol. 2 definitely has an ending, like so many Tarantino movies, the point of Kill Bill isn’t the destination but the journey.

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I respect that Vol. 1 lacks a true conclusion. However, as wonderfully loquacious as QT’s screenplays are, they are still ultimately blueprints for a bigger mise en scène, and that holds truer in Kill Bill than most. The act of homage and reference has never been stronger in a QT joint, and with Vol. 1 he not only honors the samurai and martial arts flicks of his youth, but appropriates them into his own cadence. The best lines of dialogue in the script are in the first half where Tarantino is practically shaking the audience into smirking (or maybe cringing) at the author’s self-admiration.

“You didn’t think it’d be that easy did you?”
“For a second there, yeah, I kind of did.”

“Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids.”

Beyond the too-cool-for-school vibes though is the actual sound of Kill Bill. Both volumes have killer soundtracks curated and refined by RZA, but Vol. 1 is the undeniably better selection. Whereas Vol. 2 featured Robert Rodriguez bending over backward to make the film sound like a Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western (even when QT wasn’t sampling Morricone directly), Vol. 1 had a wider, and yes cooler, soundscape to draw on. I already mentioned the use of Hermann’s haunting whistle, but there’s also HOTEI’s “Battle Without Honor” tracking O-Ren and the Crazy 88’s still iconic power walk into that restaurant—a marriage of visual and music that is still (for better and worse) aped and parodied to this day 20 years later. There’s also the fact QT brought the 5, 6, 7, 8’s to the West simply because he heard them in the Tokyo airport and then put them in the movie.

Tarantino is revered for the soundtracks he builds in nearly all his films, and Vol. 1 might contain his aural masterpiece.

Alec: See, you drop something like “silly rabbit, tricks are for kids” expecting to impress me and it’s clear that we’re just coming from different planets on this one. Nothing in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 can stand up against Bill’s (David Carradine) brilliant take on Clark Kent and Superman or Budd’s (Michael Madsen) grim resignation that they’re all probably going to die because “that woman deserves her revenge.”

But yes, a collection of superior lines doesn’t necessarily make for a superior movie. Thankfully, I’d still put Vol. 2’s aesthetic and sense of place well above Vol. 1. In the intro for this piece, you mentioned the East/West divide at the center of the two films. While I agree that Vol. 1 has a distinctly Eastern flair while Vol. 2 is more of a Western, I also think that Vol. 2 combines the best of both worlds. 

Mixing Kiddo’s Pai Mei training with gorgeous shots of the American frontier blends Tarantino’s influences beautifully. That’s largely where my “Vol. 2 renders Vol. 1 unnecessary” hersey comes from. And far be it from me to complain about a Quentin Tarantino script being too referential, but Vol. 1 may just be too masturbatory for my tastes. For this piece alone I’ve had to endure you invoking Bruce Lee, Bernard Hermann, and music from a Tokyo airport. It’s too much for my TV-addled brain to take. 

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I’m happy to give you the soundtrack win, but that’s only because I know I have the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique in my back pocket for the finale. 

David: Alec, I hear ya. That Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique is a brilliant way to conclude the biggest rivalry in these flicks. I mean they are called Kill Bill! However, one element we’ve been playing footsie around is that the “kill” in that title promises a certain degree of action. And when it comes to a little fisticuffs showmanship, Vol. 1 still has you beat.

While I respect the more deliberate and elegiac tone of Vol. 2, your aforementioned Budd not only denies The Bride her vengeance, but is killed off pitifully by Darryl Hannah, who in turn doesn’t get the epic duel with Kiddo we were promised way back at the top of Vol. 1. Meanwhile the entire last half hour of Vol. 2 is a goddamn water park show if all the water were dyed fire truck red. The swordplay is glorious, introducing millions of Americans to the wonders of samurai grindhouse cinema, and the duel alone between Beatrice and Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is the stuff of legend. Gogo doesn’t have a lot to do as a character in the narrative, but she arrives big and leaves the same way, with a literal splash of crimson dripping on the floor and those snow white sneakers.
That might sum up the appeal of Kill Bill in a nutshell. Check and mate.

Alec: In the interest of wrapping this thing up (and acknowledging that I might be in over my head here), maybe we can conclude that Vol. 1 has the best Kill and Vol. 2 has the best Bill. And really, I just prefer the latter.

Vol. 2 has a level of substance and completion that Vol. 1 just can’t achieve by virtue of its incomplete status. In the end, all of the blood, anime, and RZA tracks boil down to what is a simple custody dispute between a mother and a father. Vol. 1 lofts the ball up in the air for Vol. 2, which in turn absolutely crushes it. There is an emotional catharsis to Beatrix processing her daughter is alive and—eventually—in her life again that all the katana-swinging in the world will never match.