Death Proof

Is Quentin Tarantino too clever for Hollywood? The way the studios have treated his most recent films, you have to begin to wonder. By now, you all know the Grindhouse story. How QT and his buddy Robert Rodriguez came up with the idea of recreating the 70s exploitation film experience with a schlocky double bill interspered with fake trailers. And how Grindhouse bombed on its opening weekend, so the powers that be decided to split the bill and release each film on its own.

And it's sad to say so, but the powers that be were wrong. Having now seen both halves of Grindhouse, I can honestly say the two films were much better off as part of a double act. Particularly Death Proof, which has suffered from having an extra 20 or so minutes put back in. It feels bloated and weighed down; there's really is not enough action to sustain its running time. Although what action it does have is some of the best action seen on the screen in over a decade. In an era where CGI is king, QT has gone old school and crafted an 18-minute chase scene that is pure, 100% stunt action — with not a pixel or an Apple Mac in sight. And it is pure joy to behold. Hats of to stuntwoman Zoe Ball, who hangs on to that Dodge Challenger's hood as though her life depends on it — because it really, truly does. And that 18-minute sequence — with Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike trying to run the Challenger off the road with his "death proof" Charger — is truly the best in the film. The second-best scene? The beautifully coreagraphed, insanely vicious head-on collision in which Mike takes out his first group of victims — which takes almost an hour of set up to get to. But it's an hour full of the usual QT trademarks: the foot fetish, the cool soundtrack, the hip dialogue, the references to his earlier films — yup, all the usual pointers are there.

Madman Mike is a former Hollywood stuntman who gets his kicks from a little bit of motorised murder, using his car as a weapon. His first victims are a bunch of girls out on the town for a night of drink, drugs and dancing. Cue lots of drinking — and a particularly smoking lapdance — at a Texas bar where Tarantino himself is the barman and Hostel director Eli Roth is a sleazy customer. And as the night draws to a close we have the aforementioned head-on collision that wipes out all but Mike. Part two is 14 months later, with a recovered Mike now seeking victims in Tennesee. This time he picks on the wrong girls — a couple of stuntwomen taking a Dodge Challenger for a test drive. Cue the aforementioned awsome chase scene that ends ... well, let's just say Russell needn't bank on being in a sequel.

As an homage to 70s car flicks such as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Gone In 60 Seconds, Death Proof is perfection on wheels. As an homage to the "grindhouse" experience, it doesn't quite pull it off — about halfway through, the scratches, jumps and other "enhancements" seem to have been forgotten. It feels lost without its Rodriguez partner, and those now infamous fake trailers. But for all its faults, Death Proof is still a Tarantino film, Big Kahuna burger and all — it ain't perfect, but it's still a pleasure. And that's good enough for me.

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SECOND OPINION | Hemanth Kissoon ***
Tarantino has become an adjective as well as a proper noun. Films post-Pulp Fiction have often been described as Tarantino-esque. He joins the like of Hitchcock, Lean, Scorsese, Spielberg etc, whose landmark style in Hollywood have caused much inspiration. Like so many though who have achieved considerable critical and commercial success they become their own worst enemy. Egos go unchecked and disappointing work follows. Tarantino stand up and take your licks.

The Kill Bills were self-indulgent. There was no need for two parts and a four hour running time. The films were full of fat that could have been shorn; contrast the lean and visceral Dogs and Fiction. Death Proof is just as cumbersome. There is a 50 minute build up before anything happens, and then another long build up before the climax. If this had been any other film-maker the knives would have been out carving a new hole for such poor pacing and unsatisfying pay-off. As it is Tarantino we are doubly afraid of his new horror as he is so adept at unexpected and brutal flourishes of violence. He sustains terror through his back-catalogue, an impressive feat. However, when the bloodshed comes it is too late and lacks the necessary catharsis. There should have been way more mayhem for the two hours.
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THIRD OPINION | Neil Davey ***
Welcome back, Quentin Tarantino. You’ve been away too long. Unfortunately, for all the novelty value provided by the scratches, jumps and colour bleeds of this Grindhouse tribute, Death Proof is really just Tarantino-lite. Appropriately — though disappointingly — enough for a film about a psychopathic stuntman terrorising girls in his souped-up indestructible car, it’s Quentin on autopilot. For the first hour or so, you won’t care that much. QT saves his big old-fashioned action for much later in the film and instead — who’d have thought it? — he goes for 60-odd minutes of off-kilter dialogue. It might not be a patch on previous screenplays (it’s crying out for a ‘Royale with cheese’ zeitgeist moment of quotability) but any Tarantino dialogue is better than none at all.

So, for the first hour, the ‘action’ follows local Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney, a man whose imagination clearly knows no bounds when it comes to christenings), her friend Arlene (Ferlito) and Shanna (Ladd). They get wasted… and then they get wasted, by Stuntman Mike, played with obvious glee by Russell. They’re pretty, he’s a psycho in a custom-built stunt car that offers maximum protection to him as driver and none whatsoever to his passenger (McGowan) and any car of young women he happens to engineer a head-on collision with. And then the tables are turned when Stuntman Mike tries it again on three different girls, one of whom is Zoe Bell, real-life stunt woman and clearly game for anything. She can’t act but she can hang on to a bonnet and look terrified in a bit of genuine stuntwork that’s so much more involving than today’s standard CGI stuff.

Whether it all adds up to anything of note though is debatable. While Quentin has suggested the Grindhouse failure in the US was because nobody wanted to see two movies any more it could just be that they didn’t want to see these two movies. Or perhaps nobody really cared about the Grindhouse style, and decided the faked scratches, missing reels and losses of colour — which come to an abrupt end before the final reel incidentally — were more than a little pretentious? The simple truth of the matter is that Death Proof is not a great film, and not just in comparison to the rest of QT’s canon. Mind you, against the campness and utter stupidity of Planet Terror, Death Proof looks like a modern classic. Maybe that’s why they split the bill?
Official US Site
Official UK Site
Death Proof at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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