Published at: April 5, 2007, 8:20 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Short version: I loved it.
But oddly, the film isn’t what I expected it to be, at all.
Let’s back up a step. Right around the time it was casting, I was sent a copy of the DEATH PROOF script. I’ve been reading Tarantino’s scripts before I saw the films since RESERVOIR DOGS, and so I didn’t hesitate when the script hit my desk. I dug in, surprised at how long it was, ready to be dazzled as usual.
Then... I wasn’t. And it really threw me. It seemed talky and uneventful, with a few moments of fun, but a long of waiting around to get there. The dialogue was good, definitely in Quentin’s voice, but I’d heard all about how crazy and wild and insane GRINDHOUSE was going to be, and DEATH PROOF (despite that great title) seemed like it was anything but. As the films were shooting, I heard all sorts of wild rumors about Rodriguez’s film, PLANET TERROR, and I started to worry that this entire enterprise was going to turn out to be a vanity project that was more fun for the people who made it than the people watching it. I worried that it might be one joke that couldn’t sustain a full three-hour experience for an audience.
Now, I’ve practically been conditioned to enjoy these films thanks to BNAT and the various QT fests I’ve attended in the past decade. I already had a taste for crazy exploitation films, but most of the ones I’d seen were video discoveries. With the QT fests and with BNAT, I was reminded about the special quality of the theatrical experience, and how the right crowd can turn a good film into a great film.
When they announced the inclusion of the fake trailers as part of GRINDHOUSE, it seemed like the natural glue to hold the whole thing together. After all, Quentin used those great old theatrical headers on KILL BILL, a sort of sly nod to the way that movie felt like a marathon of different genres of movies all jammed together into one. When they announced the names of the guys involved, it made even more sense. These are all people who have either attended a BNAT or a QT fest or movie night at Quentin’s, guys who understand the exact mood that the guys said they were trying to capture in the film.
By the time I walked into that first screening at the Chinese with a couple of my buddies, all I wanted was a fun little fetish film, a movie that would pay homage to an experience that 99% of the audience will never have. I honestly didn’t expect much from either of the movies besides some cheap thrills. Instead, what you get is something akin to a ride at Walt Disney World, where the moment it begins, everything is in service of transporting you to a specific time and place, and it works beautifully. The film kicks off with MACHETE, a trailer starring Danny Trejo that looks suspiciously like a much-more-fun version of SHOOTER, the decidedly-not-fun Mark Walhberg film that just came out. Same plot, but the Trejo version is all punchline, one great gag or hard-boiled bit of dialogue after another. Watching it, I crossed my fingers and prayed for PLANET TERROR to deliver the same sort of joyous celebration of action inanity.
Oh, baby, does it ever.
This is the movie that I wanted when I saw FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. I still think the first half of that movie, everything up to the moment the first vampire arrives, is pretty damn great. But once it turns into a monster movie, the energy just dissipates, and I think the film runs out of steam in a major way. I like it in concept, but I don’t care for it at all in execution. With PLANET TERROR, Robert Rodriguez has finally set free all of his craziest instincts, and he’s managed to execute every one of his ideas with real energy and style. His is by far the more fetishistic of the two features, with near constant hisses and scratches and pops in the film, filled with arch, hilarious character work and writing that embraces cliché even as it demolishes it. Even the placement of the film break and the missing reel pays off because of the way everything in the film shifts on the other side of it. Robert wrote himself into a whole fistful of corners with these characters, and using a film break to solve everything is laugh out loud funny, especially when people refer back to things that we missed.
The cast is great, and it’s hard to single out any one person for praise in particular. Freddy Rodriguez strikes the exact right tone as El Wray, the somber hero of the piece with a mysterious past and a torch he’s still carrying for Cherry Darling, his ex-girlfriend played perfectly by Rose McGowan, who has never looked better than she does here. Just the opening title sequence of Robert’s film contains enough sexual heat to power a small nation for a year. And on top of that, she knows exactly how to play the smartass side of the character in a way that makes Cherry Darling poignant, even if she is a cartoon. Marley Shelton and Josh Brolin do really wicked work as Dakota and her husband, Dr. Block, and Brolin in particular seems to have tapped his inner scumbag with remarkable precision. I love the combination of Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn as brothers, and both guys prove that they should be working a lot more than they are with their work here. Biehn’s deputies, played by Carlos Guillardo and Tom Savini, don’t have a lot to do, but they are welcome presences anyway, and they each have a few moments where they get to play. Same with Nicky Katt, who practically stole SIN CITY with one perfectly-timed line, and who does the same thing here. Even Quentin Tarantino has a great role in this one, and he’s part of one of the most visually memorable moments of Robert’s entire career. You’ll either laugh or throw up, but you certainly won’t forget it. Naveen Andrews and Bruce Willis both do solid work in brief roles, and by the time the film wraps up, you feel like you’ve gotten a crash course in the cinematic language of Golan-Globus, like a wormhole to the ‘80s opened up and spat out some Frankenstein monster stitched together from all the crappy low-budget horror/action/SF films of that era, something that manages to stitch together all those dead pieces into something more vibrant and alive than any one of them ever was on its own.
The fake trailers in the movie are lots of fun. Even the least of the four, Rob Zombie’s WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE SS, turns out to be wicked fun. I’m not sure if I liked Eli Roth’s or Edgar Wright’s more, and I think it just depends on what flavor of horror is your particular favorite. Both demonstrate a complete understanding of the genre and its various subgenres, and both look like movies I’d happily pick up and watch tomorrow.
And then there’s DEATH PROOF.
For anyone who insists on calling Tarantino a rip-off artist, a guy who simply regurgitates his influences, I offer DEATH PROOF as the latest refutation of that idea, and one of the most persuasive. Here’s a film where he could have easily just done a pastiche of things that had come before, and instead, he’s come up with one of the most original structures of his career as a writer and one of the most sly and clever films he’s ever made. I’ve heard him describe it as a slasher film, a giallo film, a female empowerment movie. It’s all of those, but it’s none of those... at least, it’s not any of those in any way we’ve seen before. Where I can point at a dozen movies as direct precedents for PLANET TERROR, I’ve never seen DEATH PROOF before, and I’d love to see someone point out a movie that they feel this is a rip-off of... cause I don’t think you can do it.
I see a lot of love for certain ideas that are common in exploitation cinema, certainly, but he taken the way those films affect him and come up with a new way to provoke those same reactions out of an audience with something that’s all him. As much as PLANET TERROR is a fetish film for the chemical and physical nature of film prints, DEATH PROOF is a movie where QT lays many of his own personal fetishes bare. The movie starts with a close-up of a pair of bare female feet propped up on a dashboard, and there’s a lot of attention paid to female anatomy both north and south of the ankle in the film. QT loves certain actresses, and he will buy practically any film if it’s got one of his favorite actresses in it. If you ever have the chance to meet him, ask him to explain the enduring appeal of Barbara Bouchet, and then set aside a half-hour or so for his answer. Well, in DEATH PROOF, he puts his female cast on a pedestal, and the result is that many of them do some of their very best work here. Jordan Ladd, Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rose McGowan, Mary Elizabeth Winstead... they’re all given fun things to do and say, and they all come across really well. But for my money, there are three women in particular who just explode off the screen. Tracie Thoms was good on the series WONDERFALLS, and she’s done decent work in films like RENT or THE DESCENT, but nothing she’s done prepared me for the way she attacks her role here. It’s important that she be great, because she is the support that allows first-time actor Zoe Bell to really shine.
And, yes, I know Zoe Bell’s been in films before. She’s obviously a gifted stunt performer, and her work as Uma Thurman’s double for the KILL BILL films is how she first hooked up with Quentin. But this time out, QT wrote her a role as herself, and he gives her just as much dialogue as anyone else in the film. Yes, part of the reason he did it is so that he could stage some bravura stunt sequences and shoot her head-on, allowing the audience to know that they aren’t looking at a double for once. But Zoe’s a huge personality, and Quentin managed to create an environment where that personality comes through loud and clear.
Finally, there is the one and only Rosario Dawson. My shameless crush on Dawson has only gotten worse with this picture, and that’s because Abernathy, the character she plays, is the most empathetic presence in either of the features. Dawson brings this great approachable humanity to her role that makes Abernathy the heart and soul of the film. She’s got these two great friends who are both daredevils, and they constantly exclude her from their most dangerous adventures, supposedly for her own good. When she finally demands to be included, she finds herself getting more than she expected. Just before things go sour, though, there’s a moment where QT includes a quiet close-up of Abernathy going from fear to ecstasy, and the shot is a potent reminder that the greatest thrills we are able to offer on film will always come from connecting to another human being in the dark, and not from stunts or CGI or explosions. The simple shift of emotion, passing across her face like clouds moving out of the way of the sun, left me exhilarated, and when the final movement of the film kicks in, it’s Dawson who snarls the line that has gotten a cheer out of the audience both times I’ve seen the movie. Equally exciting to witness is the way they react to the very, very end of DEATH PROOF. I won't spoil what happens, but I'll say that he picks the perfect moment to end the film, and when I saw it, I flashed back immediately to the screams of disbelief and pleasure that greeted the screening of A FISTFUL OF TALONS at one of the QT fests. It's fantastic, and it made me jump out of my chair, cheering, when I first saw it.
Amazingly, I could almost wrap this up without writing about Kurt Russell. The female cast is that strong, that engrossing. But Russell steps up here with work that is some of the best of his career. He is hilarious, menacing, charismatic, vile. Stuntman Mike is both ferocious and a total pussy. He comes across as swagger personified, but he's also totally emasculated in parts. I'm so happy Russell played this instead of Mickey Rourke, because those contradictions aren't in the Stuntman Mike on the page. Russell manages to make you understand the dark heart of his character without ever once asking you to sympathize with him, a tricky thing to pull off. And there's no exposition to explain Stuntman Mike's pathology, but that doesn't mean he's a blank. Russell makes sure to let little hints about where Mike's anger comes from, and those hints make the payoff even more frightening. When he's flirting with Vanessa Ferlito early in the film, it's like watching a cobra toying with something before moving in for the kill. Snake, indeed.
Before he shot KILL BILL, the question was whether or not QT could shoot a great action sequence, and I think he answered that one pretty conclusively. Now he’s shown that he also knows how to shoot a car chase that is as exciting as any I can name. This is a car sequence that can go right next to BULLIT or THE FRENCH CONNECTION or, yes, even VANISHING POINT up there on the shelf. It’s all about character and emotion, and it’s not just a collection of hollow gags. It actually causes my pulse to race each time I sit through it, and I find myself almost unable to sit still. It’s thrilling precisely because of how much time QT takes to set the moment up, because of how much he asks us to invest in these women and their situation. DEATH PROOF is a total original, and it’s one of the most personal things Quentin has ever put on film. If you want to understand him as an artist, DEATH PROOF is a vital piece of the puzzle, and it’s what elevates GRINDHOUSE from a fun evening at the movies to something truly great.
Oh... and that missing reel in DEATH PROOF? One of the most brutal, malicious bits of cinematic blue balls ever. You are a cold, cruel man, Mr. Tarantino, and I applaud you for it.
As I head into Hollywood to see the film again tonight, this time taking my wife with me so she can see it for the first time, I have no choice but to crank up the soundtrack. Maybe I’m tempting fate by screaming down the 170 with “Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch at full-volume. Maybe it’s my OCD that makes me playing “Chick Habit” 12 times in a row. But once again, QT’s found the exact right soundtrack to capture the mood of his movie, songs that now belong to him and to these characters. Sure, people will poach these songs to try to sell us cars and detergent and a dozen other products in the next few years, but that’s just imitation. These songs are married to these images now, to marvelous effect. Rodriguez pulls off a similar trick with his score, a big fat piece of synth cheese that uses a few cues from other films, but which also contains new material that perfectly matches those samples.
I’m impressed that both Rodriguez and Tarantino are listed as the cinematographers on their own films. It’s one thing to light and shoot your own movie, but it’s a whole different kind of difficult to recreate a bygone era of cinematography, and both of these guys pull it off with aplomb.
Someone complained in one of our recent GRINDHOUSE talkbacks that it’s easy to make a “critic proof” movie. Horseshit. No such thing. If these movies were poorly made or didn’t deliver on what they promised, they would be easily criticized. Although I like Robert Rodriguez, I’ve hardly spent my time here at AICN holding him up as flawless. I think with this film and with SIN CITY, we’re finally seeing Robert deliver on the promise he’s always shown, and I think it’s because we’re seeing him embrace these genres with absolute expressions of love. With Quentin, I know how high expectations are for his work, but I think people frequently demand something they’re not going to get from him. If all you want is another RESERVOIR DOGS, that’s your issue... not his. These are filmmakers who have followed their muse, for better or for worse, and what they’ve come up with here rewards every bit of faith I’ve ever put in them as a viewer.
GRINDHOUSE is, simply put, one of the most exuberant theatrical experiences I’ve had in quite some time, and I plan to see it at least twice more while it’s in theaters. I look forward to whatever “restored editions” are going to arrive down the road, but I adore this particular configuration, and if you walk into it knowing what to expect, ready for this ride, I’m willing to bet you will, too.