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Grindhouse ***½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Freddy Rodriguez and Naveen Andrews prepare for war with Planet Terror's army of the dead.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews. Rated R.

Grindhouse 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.


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