death proof (2007)
Death Proof is Tarantino's most divisive films, but it really should be viewed as one of his best. It doesn't fit his brand, and so in that way it really is the worst "Tarantino" film because it's not very "Tarantino", it stands apart and mostly above his other output, in many ways it's superior to the rest of his cannon. I credit its commercial and critical failure as the turning point in his career when all growth as an artist ceased and we were introduced to Tarantino the showman (there's been no sign of the young maverick who made Pulp Fiction ever since). In Death Proof, Tarantino is equal parts film historian, academic theorist and filmmaker, this film understood what it was trying to parrot and it understood the value of atmosphere over plot in 70's American b-movies. The films that he's channeling here weren't honestly about much, they were about themselves, but what elevated them to b-movie art was their ability to be so precisely and deeply and evocatively about themselves. Death Proof understands how to live in its own skin as though it always has and always will. The humid night air on the porch at the bar, the glow of the electric lights, the hot pavement; this is a film that communicates with its audience in a different way than any of his other films. It's also how the films he's imitating communicated, it transports you to a time and a place fully, with its characters as a backdrop (and fodder for annihilation), rather than the other way around where the setting is a backdrop and we're meant to be overly-interested in the characters and their dialogue. When I first saw Death Proof almost 10 years ago, my reaction was thusly:
"This review is not only for Death Proof, but for the Grindhouse film as a whole. I have to be honest with you, when I first heard about this project (which had to be, I dunno ... over a year ago?) I was pretty skeptical of the possibility that it would ever actually be made. At the time it seemed like one of Quentin Tarantino's half-baked ramblings about a new film he was going to make and yadda yadda. I mean, remember his World War II epic entitled Inglorious Bastards? Has yet to see the light of day. How about his Mandarin kung-fu action flick that would be poorly dubbed on purpose? His Friday the 13th sequel? His James Bond sequel? The list goes on and on. And so, when he came out spouting plans to make a double-feature 70's exploitation B-movie homage with his pal Robert Rodriguez that would be titled Grindhouse, I more or less thought nothing of it. Well, now that it's really here, I'm surprisingly thinking plenty of it. In fact, I'd like to go right ahead and take this time to call it one very enjoyable success. Tarantino and Rodriguez took every trash-movie urge in their popcorn butter-soaked brains and splattered it onto the screen in three hours of madness and mayhem, hot chicks and fast cars, zombies and machine guns, and let's not forget all-out gore. Two films shown back-to-back, just like the old drive-in days of the 1970's, have become one very fun time at a theater. The Rodriguez film is called Planet Terror, the Tarantino is called Death Proof. Add in some fake movie trailers from the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth to gel the two together, and you've got a great evening ahead of you.
Of course, screening two flicks like this back-to-back has led to the inevitable battle; it's gotten to the point where everybody I talk to wants to know "which one was better?" I'll settle it early in the review so we can all move on: the films are extremely different and each make up an essential piece of the 70's trash cinema puzzle. Planet Terror is manic, fast-paced and purposely funny; it's also high on gore and very action oriented. Death Proof kicks back and takes it slow, it soaks up the atmosphere of a midnight drive-in feature. Its got its share of gore and high-octane thrills, but is alot more interested with creating atmosphere and a cast of odd characters. For my money, Tarantino's Death Proof is the epitome of faux 70's trash; it's a perfect recreation of the style and touchstones that made those grindhouse flicks what they were and it was easily my favorite of the two. However, Rodriguez delivers a good time, and while neither one 100% hit the nail on the head for me, Tarantino brought the emotion and under-the-radar style jokes to his piece that the in-your-face Planet Terror just couldn't match. Rodriguez makes this pretty clear right off the bat as we're handed an opening scene about a guy who collects the balls of employees who don't deliver what he wants in a giant jar that he keeps with him. No, like seriously, he literally cuts their nuts off and carries them around with him. Funny, yes, but it's way too obvious an attempt at over-the-top humor. In my humble opinion, it's the kind of humor that runs rampant through parodies and homages to B-movies, but not actual B-movies themselves. The real flicks weren't trying so hard to be funny (unless they were directed by Russ Meyer and his ilk, who kept their humor subtle and just over-the-top enough), they were serious about what they did. Much in the same way that no one seems to be able to capture the true essence of film noir. The filmmakers who created these things weren't aware of what they were doing in the films; they weren't privy to those elements that are so noticable today. Once they became self-aware, that honest quality was drained out of them. For me, it's that quality that makes a grindhouse film what it is. Tarantino mimics this extremely well, but again, not to full perfection. The plot of these films ... well, it doesn't really matter but I might as well give it a brief overview. Planet Terror revolves around a couple of classic B-movie character-types caught up in a zombie attack. Rodriguez hits the nail on the head in a number of scenes, especially in the hospital as the outbreak begins and in the zombie attack setpieces. My biggest problem with the flick was one of too much information; I would have loved to never know how or why the zombie epidemic started (much like in Romero's Dead films). Also, the characters and plot are incredibly fun at times, but as I said before, Rodriguez is a little too self-aware for his own good. Rose McGowan makes a fantastic leading lady, and the scenes where her leg is replaced by a machine gun make for some of the movie's best sequences. In Death Proof, Tarantino directs Kurt Russel as Stuntman Mike, a stuntcar driver who gets off by killing girls with his "death proof" car. Rose McGowan plays a large role in this story too, and many actors show up in both films. The film tends to lose its momentum around the mid-section, but Tarantino's knockout finale ensures we don't leave the theater disappointed.
The films are very different in tone from one another, so much so that I wonder if the two directors (who really have less in common than they seem to think) even so much as saw a script to the other's film before opening day. Obviously they weren't going for a unified experience, but when Death Proof starts up it's jarring how much slower and assured the direction is. And, really these are films that are all about direction. The characters aren't given enough time on the screen to remotely catch our attention (except, of course, McGowan), and so the double-feature begins with an hour and 1/2 trip through the personality of Robert Rodriguez and then ends with the personality of Quentin Tarantino. The Rodriguez jaunt is marred by the same problems apparent in the visuals of Sin City where the entire thing looks like it was made on a computer. Also Rodriguez's direction is pretty darn bad in his action sequences, never showing anything coherent except a bunch of disjointed shots that show all the wrong parts of the zombie action. It's hard to screw up a zombie attack, but these get pretty close to sucking. Of course, though, they don't suck, as if anything with zombies ever actually could. It's the humor and the visceral impact that keep Planet Terror afloat even when a few poor elements are bringing it down. This is not to say it's bad, far from it, some of the segments border on sublime in their own "guilty pleasure" kind of way. Tarantino keeps his in that category much of the time as well, except we can all feel a bit less guilty. Death Proof is well-shot, conceptually sound, and very nicely directed. He captures the tone perfectly of a drive-in film, and also of a sweltering Texas day and night. The feelings it invokes of a roadside bar or an open Texan country road are so infective that my friends and I literally felt compelled to stop by a bar on the way home. That's where this flick really succeeds, and it's where Tarantino seems to be comfortable and having fun. I've always respected Tarantino as a director and fellow film fan, but I'm just not sure how much. He tends to ... borrow ... quite a bit from other films and he makes no secret of that, but he's always willing to put his own unique spin on the material. For the record though, I'd like to see him shy away from this for at least one film and see what a Tarantino who isn't so literally infatuated by postmodernism could do. This film is also the point where the classic tarantino dialogue hits its breaking point (or vanishing point, to name-drop almost as awkwardly as the dialogue). The way the characters talk grows tiresome. This is the film that should be the most comfortable with sex, violence and drugs, but the way Tarantino writes about them sounds like a teenager who's only seen movies dealing with the subjects (which his other films seem to suggest otherwise). In an odd turn of events that's never happened to me during one of his film, it actually sounded like he had no idea what he was talking about. Other than that tiny flaw, Death Proof has it all where it counts. In a parade of nicely composed cinematography, I can't decide if I like the shot that lowers to put us right on the hot pavement during a discussion with our car racing chicks more, or the entire film's most pitch perfect shot involving a dirty, greased up hick, a scantilly-clad cheerleader and a muscle car phalic symbol. Yeah, that's right. Oh, and I have yet to mention the climactic car chase, which is so inventive and perfect that it would crush me to find out it's lifted from another film. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt.
So, check it out, and do it fast. This thing is unfortunately bombing at the box office, which the studio blames on people not understanding the double-feature concept. So, you guessed it, they're chopping it apart into two films and supposedly re-releasing it in theaters as separate films. I don't know if I buy that, but they definitely won't be on the same DVD. Sad, because the experience is what this film is all about, and without those hilarious fake trailers (the best of which easily being Roth's Thanksgiving) and overload of zany action, these things just won't be the same. Grindhouse won't exist in a few short weeks, so make sure to check it out before it disappears. Kudos to a couple of directors who, while not perfect, know how to have a good time. And, in the film business, that might be the most important talent of all.