So, Grindhouse. Frankly, it seems a bit late to post this review. Those limited few who had any interest in this two-director vanity project caught it that first weekend, and it’s completely nose-dived since (so much so that even Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is now being scaled back to escape a similar fate, as if that were ever going to happen.) But, for completists’ sake, I found Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the violent, smutty B-movies of yesteryear to be a fun idea at first, but not nearly entertaining enough to merit the three-and-a-half-hour slog. Some of the fake trailers, particularly Rodriguez’s Machete (i.e. the Mexican Shooter) and Edgar Wright’s Don’t, are chuckle-inducing, and there’s a certain goofy relish to be taken in the Z-grade John Carpenterisms of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, if you were ever a late-night Cinemax addict or grindhouse aficionado (I was not the latter — I’m too young for the whole Grindhouse scene, frankly, which may explain why the film bombed so badly. When even cinephiles in their early thirties missed the nostalgia train Rodriguez and Tarantino are serving up, that’s going to seriously eat into your audience figures.) But, otherwise, Grindhouse reminded me more than anything else of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police — a film that started off enjoyably, but ultimately became too much like its object of parody (there, bad action films; in this case, bad ’70’s movies.) And Tarantino’s Death Proof is to my mind just an egregious misfire, but more on that in a bit.
The first half of the Grindhouse bill is Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a sort of John Carpenter meets George Romero zombie flick in which a good-hearted stripper (Charmed‘s Rose McGowan) and her bad-ass trucker ex (Six Feet Under‘s Freddy Rodriguez — let’s hear it for short action stars) must rally a small Texas town against the flesh-devouring zombies in their midst (Said zombies were created by a wayward toxic cloud unleashed by the unholy tandem of Osama Bin Laden and Bruce Willis.) In keeping with the Grindhouse milieu, Planet Terror is, by design, a lousy film — its only upside comes in feeling in on the joke. And I will admit to sorta stupidly enjoying myself through most of Rodriguez’s half of the show, be it due to Josh Brolin’s low-grade Nick Nolte (as an HND poster noted), Rodriguez blasting away on a mini-bike, the CGI-enhanced sloppy edits and film deterioration, or the perfectly cheesy synth score. (And, really, who better to play redneck brothers in a capital-B-movie than Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn? Speaking from a purely fanboy perspective, it was just great to see Hicks/Reese again on the big screen.) In short, Planet Terror is, frankly, kinda awful: I wouldn’t sit through it again, and I can’t even come close to recommending it. But it’s a better bad film than, say, From Dusk Till Dawn, the last time Rodriguez and Tarantino tried this gag, and for its first hour at least I found myself going along reasonably contentedly on the terrible-movie-ride I was promised.
But, then comes Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, which admittedly I’m holding to higher expectations. Rodriguez has shown himself over the years basically to be a prolific and well-meaning hack. But, from Reservoir Dogs — a movie that blew me away as an 18-year-old Blockbuster clerk — to Pulp Fiction, the thrill ride (and soundtrack) of my sophomore year in college, to Jackie Brown, still Tarantino’s most mature and accomplished work, QT seemed like he might be a true auteur, a guy who could recombinate his extensive knowledge of cinema with his sheer passion for movies to create a career’s worth of films for the ages. But, like Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof marks another self-satisfied retreat into Tarantino’s narrowly-defined, solipsistic fanboy universe. To be honest, even though I was bored through much of Kill Bill 1, I never expected him to make a movie this dull.
Basically, Death Proof examines the fate of two female quartets — one in Austin, one in Tennessee — after they encounter the dark, dangerous, and wheedling persona of one Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, winking back to his Carpenter roots), a homicidal stalker with a “death-proof” car. But, despite its schlocky set-up, Death Proof is way too talky to have ever made much headway in a real grindhouse: The film is mostly comprised of these gangs of four nattering endlessly in unrealistic fashion about boys, music, or whatever else comes to mind, and each and every one of them talks and acts like Quentin Tarantino in wish-fulfillment mode: Amidst the MF and N-bombs, these beautiful gals name-drop movies like Zatoichi and Vanishing Point or esoteric bands like Dave Dee, Dosy, Beaky, Mich & Tich, all the while showing off their sumptuous feet and eventually, of course, kicking ass and taking names. (Yes, we already saw this in Kill Bill. In fact you could argue Tarantino’s cameo as a fiend-rapist who gets his just desserts in Planet Terror is all of Death Proof in a nutshell.) Really, Tarantino’s ear has never been so off. It being a grindhouse/exploitation flick, QT can get away with unrealistic women…but boring is its own problem.
At any rate, as you might guess from the plot, the last half hour or so of Death Proof involves a car chase between Russell and one of the aforementioned quartets, but that isn’t much more interesting than all the interminable chat we’ve already labored through. (Some reviews have pegged this as a bravura moment in car chase cinema — I thought it was dull even compared to recent stuff like The Bourne Supremacy or Ronin, to say nothing of flicks like The French Connection.) There’s one exceptionally haunting scene involving Vanessa Ferlito’s very last encounter with Stuntman Mike that suggests Tarantino might still have a few tricks up his sleeve, if he ever gets his act together some day. But, all in all, Grindhouse suggests more than anything else that he’s still stuck in the Kill Bill rut. What he probably needs to do is try to adapt someone else’s work again, a la Jackie Brown, before indulging in yet another B-movie flight of fancy like the Kill Bills and Death Proof. As it is, Tarantino’s flicks are sadly becoming a bit of a grind.