Individual film ratings:
Planet Terror: B+
Death Proof: D+
I suppose that deep down we all knew that eventually this day would come. One cannot stay on fire forever.
Yes my friends, Quentin Tarantino, the high geek god of independent film, has finally made a genuinely lousy picture. And it's not just some so-so mediocrity. No, we're talking a I-have-no-desire-to-ever-see-this-film-again picture.
But fear not! All is not lost. Tarantino's failure does not sink the whole ship.
"Grindhouse" is the most recent collaboration between Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez - it's their eighth time working together in 13 years. It's also another excursion into the pair's genre of choice: the ultra-cool, ultra-violent neo-exploitation picture. This time around, though, instead of simply trying to emulate the style and spirit of the late '60s and '70s cult cinema, they're trying to recreate the entire experience of the era.
In "Grindhouse" the audience gets two full-length films for the price of one: Rodriguez's zombie movie "Planet Terror" followed by Tarantino's alleged slasher flick "Death Proof." (I say "alleged" because it shares little with the traditional slasher film exemplified in "Friday the 13th," "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween," and "Scream.") The double-feature is only the beginning, though. Also included are four fake trailers, three of which were directed by guest directors Eli Roth ("Hostel,") Rob Zombie ("The Devil's Rejects,") and Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead.") The first of the trailers is directed by Rodriguez and proceeds "Planet Terror." It's arguably the best of the lot and plans are underway to actually film it as full-length film and release it on DVD simultaneously with the DVD release of "Grindhouse." I won't spoil the fun by going into detail about the trailers. Needless to say, they're hilarious.
Also adding to the experience is the presentation. Seventies-era "coming attractions," "feature presentation," and "mature audiences" graphics are interspersed between the films and trailers. Also the films were intentionally scratched and given poor splices. Most bizarre and hilarious of all though, are intentionally-inserted "missing reels" that cause the films to jump forward ten minutes or so. Upon hearing about this last element I was initially skeptical but in execution it's used well to solid comedic effect.
Despite the clever premise, though, are the films themselves any good?
Well, one of them is. Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" is fantastic, over-the-top fun, fully delivering exactly what the film's promotions promised. In "Planet Terror" a dangerous, top-secret biological weapon is accidentally unleashed on a tiny Texas town. The deadly chemical spreads quickly, transforming its victims into zombie-like creatures. The hospital - manned by a troubled married couple (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton) - is quickly overrun with the infected. A band of citizens must team together for survival. There's the barbecue chef (Jeff Fahey,) his brother the tough sheriff (Michael Biehn,) and the deputies. There's go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and her mysterious ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez.) In the end they must face the rogue military commander Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis,) the man responsible for unleashing the virus. Most instrumental in this final battle with Muldoon and his chemically-mutated troops is Cherry, whose amputated leg is replaced with an assault rifle with built-in grenade launcher.
This machine gun leg is one of the more prominent images in the film's promotion. It was also a particularly risky move on Rodriguez's part. It's an idea that had a very strong chance of failing miserably, being simply too stupid and ridiculous. Strangely, and I'm really not quite sure how, Rodriguez pulls it off. The whole machine gun leg thing is actually pretty cool and effective.
"Effective" is really a pretty accurate summation of "Planet Terror." With it Rodriguez really achieves what "Grindhouse" was trying to do. He's truly made a film that would be at home in a '70s-era grindhouse. With its gross-out make-up effects, cheesy gore, and often-intentionally-poorly shot cinematography he resurrects the signature elements of the exploitation films while providing the pluses available to a modern Hollywood director of his stature, namely decent production values and recognizable actors.
Bottom line: regardless of the weaknesses of "Death Proof" (which we'll explore next) it's still worth going out to see "Grindhouse" just to catch "Planet Terror" and the fake trailers.
"Death Proof" fails in two fundamental fashions. The first, and probably most important, is just as a movie in and of itself. Watched and considered separately, it's just not that great of a film. Secondly, it does not fit in with the theme and supposed mission of "Grindhouse." Its higher budget and stars aside, "Planet Terror" could conceivably have actually been a film one might see in the theoretical '70s grindhouse experience that Rodriguez and Tarantino are supposed to be trying to recreate. "Death Proof" just does not strike me as typical grindhouse fair. Rather it seems more like a Tarantino movie very loosely inspired by '70s grindhouse films.
Going into "Grindhouse" most audience members probably have some idea what they're getting: fake trailers, a gory zombie film, and a movie with a scarred Kurt Russell and a stunt car. Really, though, "Death Proof" is not particularly about a crazy man and his car. It's about two groups of women who spend a lot of time talking about nothing and then get terrorized by a crazy man and his car.
The first half of "Death Proof" takes place in the same town as "Planet Terror" (a few characters from the first film even show up briefly) at some point before the zombie epidemic. Several weed-smoking, hard-drinking female slackers - one of whom happens to be a local DJ - go out for a night on the town. In one of the bars they meet Stuntman Mike (Russell,) a rather odd but seemingly harmless eccentric. By night's end they learn the hard way that Stuntman Mike is anything but friendly.
Then for the second half the film ditches all of the previous characters and tells a totally unrelated episode involving four more female friends. Instead of a group of slackers, these new characters are working on a movie in Tennessee. One of them is an actress, another does make-up, and two others do stunts. And Stuntman Mike again shows up in his "death proof" car to terrorize them. See the gimmick is that it's a "slasher" flick in which the weapon is not a knife but a "death proof" car.
However, unlike "Planet Terror," most of "Death Proof" has nothing to do with the elements of the exploitation and grindhouse films. "Planet Terror" is packed from beginning to end with gore, action, and ultra-violence. "Death Proof" has tons of boring, meaningless dialogue, and some less-than-impressive car stunts.
Tarantino is famous for his dialogue. It was one of the key elements to his success in the mid '90s with the modern day classics "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and - my absolute favorite of his filmography - "Jackie Brown." However, just having great dialogue isn't enough. It has to be spoken by engaging characters as depicted by talented actors - two pieces of the puzzle sorely missing from "Death Proof." (Sole exception: Rosario Dawson.) The characters just go on and on and on and I couldn't care less. I don't like these characters, I'm not interested in them, thus I'm bored out of my mind.
Now there's a phrase I never thought I'd ever write about a Tarantino film. "Bored out of my mind." I feel like I'm committing some grand cinematic heresy.
With the way "Grindhouse" is set up, though, one can totally avoid Tarantino's weak, masturbatory contribution. With it being the second of the two features, one can catch "Planet Terror" and the fake trailers and still get your money's worth. And that's what I recommend.