January 2, 2008

Death Proof review
Death proof

Matt: Three and a half Stars

Length: 114min

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Précis: Quentin Tarantino’s homage to heroines and smash-’em-up ‘grindhouse’ cinema is half dazzling, half disappointing, and quintessentially Tarantino.

Review by Matt:

In a unique experiment, cinema powerhouses Quentin Tarrantino and Robert Rodriguez each created a film in the jumpy, kitschy style of 1970’s B-grade cinema. They lovingly excised some ‘lost footage’, added reel marks, black and white bits, poor edits, audio pops, and (especially in Rodriguez’s effort) moments of square, exploitative schlock-ness. The result was Rodriguez’s zombie-action Planet Terror and Tarantino’s car-chase thriller Death Proof. In the US the films were released together as a mighty double-feature called Grindhouse. Unfortunately, the experiment had limited appeal, and it crumpled terribly at the box office. Tarantino’s Death Proof crawled from the carnage and lives on now as a solo release, separated from its zombie brother.

Death Proof takes a couple of carloads of sassy girls (who are sometimes in peril, but mostly just showing their sass), a liberal dollop of car-chase action, and smears them onto a B-Grade base to cook for nearly two hours. Its plot is built around two connected stories. In the first, a group of girls hits the town, shoots the breeze, and eventually meets the mysteriously charming ‘Stuntman Mike’ (Kurt Russell). The second story features four different girls shooting the breeze, test driving a stunt car and, while out on the road, also bumping into old Stuntman Mike. What’s this character up to? The plot thickens.

Tarantino has done an outstanding job of presenting the film. Behind the jumpy edits and grainy film, Death Proof is slick and well constructed: it’s glittering, diamond-encrusted trash. In particular the vehicular action scenes are marvelous – surely light years beyond the quality that the old exploitation flicks could achieve. New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell also plays herself in the film and, of course, performs all her own stunts, which lends a unique authenticity to the action scenes. Much of the acting is also grin-inducing and enjoyable. In particular, the scarred and weathered Kurt Russell pitches his Stuntman Mike character right into the odd, fluctuating space between laughable and profound.

Death Proof is an homage, but Tarantino also injects a large amount of himself into the film. It’s stylish in Tarantino’s idiosyncratic way, which also means it contains some indulgent, sensational violence. Tarantino’s also known for his offbeat, riffing dialogue and he’s certainly packed this into Death Proof. In fact, the two lonely ingredients to the film are: firstly, irreverent and irrelevant dialogue and, secondly, car-smashing action. And the action component is fairly small, so be ready for a lot of pointless chatter. In other more successful Tarantino films, the dialogue hangs from a well-formed plot – kind of like Shakespearian comic relief, only the clowns are also the protagonists. In Death Proof, the banter basically is the plot. It does little to enhance the climactic action, and can be tiresome. This is really the weak point of the film. One gets the impression that Tarantino is so revved up about his dialogue, his actresses and his project that he just left too much of it in (although we are seeing the international release of Death Proof which has an extra 25 minutes of footage – the Grindhouse version was edited down considerably).

Death Proof stands well on its own. I found it guiltily entertaining, though admittedly much of my enjoyment actually came from enthusiasm for the Grindhouse experiment and the novelty of watching a cheerfully faulty anachronism (I felt the same forgiving affection for Planet Terror). But I would not really want to watch a film like Death Proof too often. The cinema that Tarantino is mimicking is actually not so great, and he’s adopted its flaws as well. It has limited suspense, some fantastic action, cringe-inducing gore, and a ramshackle plot that would have taken a couple of minutes to conceive. Looking at Death Proof in isolation from its schlocky, fanfilm purpose, it is enjoyable and, in some ways, amazing. But Tarantino’s gleeful revelry as he plays in his beloved genre doesn’t translate into quite as much fun for the viewer.


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