Starring: Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson,
Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews. Rated R.
is an indulgent love letter to the
exploitation films of the 1970s, those gleefully obscene slices of American
sleaze featured in the kind of inner-city theaters that have since been
sanitized or replaced by a Starbucks. Grindhouse won’t be shown in those
theaters – they don’t exist anymore, except in the memories of fans like Robert
Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino – but it perfectly captures the style and tone
of its crude-and-proud-of-it forebears, movies like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Vanishing Point and Ilsa, She
Wolf of the SS.
Both of the feature-length films on display in Grindhouse – Rodriguez’s Planet
Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof – have
an authentic look and feel, right down to their scratchy prints and missing
reels. (So, too, do the accompanying trailers, courtesy of contributing
directors Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Edgar Wright.) And yet there is a marked
discrepancy between the two. While Rodriguez plays with the traditional
hallmarks of the zombie genre – gratuitous gore and nudity, outrageous plot
twists and laughable overacting – he keeps the action fast and hyperkinetic.
Beneath the blood-soaked surface, there is a subtle wit and devious charm.
Death Proof doesn’t quite measure up. True to form,
Tarantino delivers plenty of explicit, rapid-fire dialogue (none sharp enough
to warrant comparison with the memorable wordplay of Pulp Fiction or Kill
Bill 2) and pays effective tribute to his favorite car-chase thriller (the
oft-referenced Vanishing Point). But the story is awkwardly paced, and too
simple for its own good.
After a sluggish build-up, the action begins in earnest
when Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a smooth-talking psychopath, lures a sultry
blonde (Rose McGowan, who stars in both films) into his “death-proof” Dodge
Charger before treating her to a lethal joyride. Thereafter, he preys on other
unsuspecting young women until he meets his match – a feisty trio who exact
swift revenge from behind the wheel of their own fully loaded Dodge Challenger.
It’s a raucous celebration of girl and car power, but
where’s the suspense? Early on, Death Proof establishes Stuntman Mike as a
rugged, indestructible anti-hero whose disarming smile masks a serious appetite
for carnage. (In recent interviews, Tarantino has acknowledged his desire to
resurrect the “badass” Kurt Russell of early ’80s cult classics like Escape
From New York and The Thing.) But Mike is a bit too easily neutered. At the
first sign of resistance, his veneer of sinister cool vanishes, and it’s clear
that the grand finale of a showdown isn’t going to be that grand at all.
That’s not to say Death Proof isn’t entertaining, but as
the entrée in a two-course meal, it’s simply less satisfying than Planet
Terror. Rodriguez’s homage to the bastard sons of George A. Romero’s Living
Dead franchise is basic enough in its own right, with its flesh-eating zombies
terrorizing a cast of alluring lowlifes, but it’s loaded with smart dialogue,
ultra-colorful characters and action so frenetically paced and consciously
over-the-top that it’s invigorating. If Death Proof could match that energy, Grindhouse would be the year’s
best film to date.