If only it were Weinstein proof...
I was very nearly put off Death Proof from the word go. It's opening reels demonstrate everything that has come to annoy me about Quentin Tarantino's 'style' (if it can be called such), with it's authentic period cinema idents, seventies film stock look, contrived dialogue and constant references to cult movies and music coming across not so much as a loving homage than an absolute avalanche of the hideously trite. Quite frankly I'd had enough of it by the end of the first hour of Kill Bill Vol. 1, and as an opening to this half of the now defunct Grindhouse double bill it's a move that will probably leave those not in the know scratching their heads and tuning out. But then Death Proof is a movie which has quite clearly been conceived specifically for those who do get 'it', and it's unlikely to give a damn for anyone who just isn't cool enough to appreciate the intentionally dodgy edits, momentary loss of colour and sporadic bouts of out-of-synch dialogue
Now, I'm not going to pretend to know much about the whole grind house ethos, unlike so many Tarantino acolytes who will no doubt have spent five minutes on Wikipedia researching the term before claiming to have always had an interest in this most obscure of American drive-in events. I do know enough from snatched whirring of the PR machine to know that it seems to revolve around back-to-back showings of cult horror, exploitation and sci-fi B-movies that took place during the seventies and early eighties, hence the scratched, jumpy and often washed-out feel of the image here. In fact until one of the characters pulls out a mobile phone midway through the second reel the intent is clearly to convince the audience that this is the period in which events take place, and as such Tarantino has certainly succeeded in his goals on an aesthetic level.
The plot, thinner than the nylon slacks of a circa '70s pimp, has Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) chasing two groups of females along the highways of middle America at different periods in time, his sole aim being for some inexplicable reason to bring them to a messy end in crashes with his own 'death-proofed' stunt car (first a '70 Chevy Nova then latterly a '69 Dodge Charger). After his first crash reference is made to a sexual perversion being Mike's main motivation, but his reasons are never explored in even the shallowest of diversions. Instead Tarantino focuses on long, drawn out conversations between both groups of girls as he establishes his victims' backgrounds before they become faced with automotive annihilation. I haven't made up my mind whether this is an intentionally bold move on the director's part, or simply a result of the fact that so much praise is heaped upon his ability to write utter drivel that he feels compelled to deliver on some quota for the sake of his admirers.
Either way, so long as cameras are panning around unbroken seven minute takes at roadside diner tables it's a case of same old same old, and frankly I've had about enough of it. Fortunately Russell's performance as Mike goes some way to rectifying this state of affairs, with the veteran actor giving his best effort since Breakdown. Despite being lumbered with a trademark Tarantino quirky name, Stuntman Mike is a creepy fella indeed, able as he is to ooze a nebulous menace while at the same time having a way with feisty young women which is both believably magnetic and at the same time perfectly unhinged. Despite his shallow motives and non-existent background Mike manages to be the film's single greatest asset, and while far from Citizen Kane he is a character who fits the bill precisely as his director intended and generates exactly the right effect. Whether or not you enjoy such a performance will doubtless pivot on how willing you are to give in to the grind house ethos, but I for one was pleasantly surprised.
And of course there will be those who are looking forward primarily to the crash scenes, of which the first, played out four times in jump cut to highlight the fate of each girl involved, is easily the most visceral and, dare I say it, satisfying. Of course if severed limbs and catapulted bodies aren't your bag I wouldn't bother buying a ticket in the first place. What's perhaps most surprising is that this event aside there is actually very little for the gore hound to lap up. Coming for once as a pleasant realisation to myself, I have no doubt that a lot of people are going to be let down by this state of affairs because they come to a Tarantino offering as much for blood and guts these days as they used to for audacious writing and directorial flair. Still, there are enough lines of pretentious dialogue to keep the pub film experts happy long enough, even if they fail to notice the complete lack of substance elsewhere.
That said there is a part of me that enjoyed Death Proof for the contrived nonsense it so clearly is. However, I can?t help but feel that a great deal of that enjoyment has been lost in the separation from it?s sister piece Planet Terror. I understand the decision was made mostly for monetary reasons, with a lot of cinemas no doubt baulking at loss of revenue and the distributors rubbing their hands at the prospect of twice the dough, and it's a real shame that we will never get to experience Grindhouse to the fullest extent, resplendent in faux intermission adverts and such. Planet Terror may not have been gathering the greatest reviews, but this was always intended as a cultural event as much as a movie double bill and knowing this it feels like Death Proof has lost a limb of it's own. No doubt something can be salvaged with a box set DVD release of the two, but as an individual work of cinema it's hard to offer Death Proof too much praise beyond the superficial. Entertaining for sure, hamstrung even more so. Idiots.
Rosario Dawson (Abernathy)
Zoe Bell (Zo?)