Buckling up for Death Proof

Poster for Death ProofI’ve just got back from the flicks, where I saw Death Proof, the new Quentin Tarantino movie. The film, an homage to ’70s exploitation cinema, was designed to play as part of a double bill with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – two movies within one three-hour epic called Grindhouse that came complete with trailers (directed by the likes of Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright) for faux horror films such as Thanksgiving, Werewolf Women Of The SS and Don’t.

Unfortunately, when Grindhouse opened in the US earlier this year, it underperformed at the box office and the concept confused the hell out of some of the folk who did go to see it. In an attempt to ‘save’ the project, it was decided to split, extend and release the two features separately in other countries, thus tearing a decent idea to shreds.

I promised myself that I’d wait for a DVD of the original Grindhouse but, of course, I can’t resist watching these films on the big screen, where they’re meant to be seen, and the added running time ensured that my wallet was emptied of seven quid on Death Proof’s opening weekend (Planet Terror, by all accounts a high-octane zombiethon, is out in November).

Death Proof is about an ex-stuntman who’s built a ‘death-proof’ car – ie, one he can smash the hell out of yet emerge from alive, if not entirely unscathed. The car is a weapon which he uses to murder women. And even if I wasn’t avoiding spoilers here, I’d be hard-pushed to write a longer synopsis than that, as the film is virtually plotless.

The number one thing that Death Proof has going for it is Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike. His presence lifts every scene he’s in. Whenever he’s on screen, it’s a great film, but when he’s not, it’s not. And that isn’t a criticism of the rest of the cast – there’s nothing wrong with the acting; it’s just that it’s a very talky film and the dialogue isn’t all that interesting.

There are pages of conversation – people in cars and bars, mostly talking about their sex lives – and my mind started wandering during the lengthier scenes. So many of the characters talk like they’re in a Tarantino film. And, yes, I know they are, but in this instance nothing interesting’s being said – it’s style over substance: a whole heap of profanity and attitude from every character that soon starts to feel repetitive.

Poster for GrindhouseWhere Death Proof comes alive (no pun intended) is in the action scenes – the car stunts. The centrepiece, which I won’t spoil here, is stunning. The growing sense of dread is handled perfectly, and the scene pays off with a shocking act of violence that happens so fast it’s replayed multiple times so the viewer can see exactly what happened and to whom. It’s with scenes such as this that Tarantino earns his reputation.

Also of note is the general look of the film. The bleached colours, deliberate scratches and jumps, and even a whole reel that’s in black and white – a modern cinema chain’s worst nightmare, I’d imagine (“sorry, sir, it’s supposed to look like that”) – create a very cool grindhouse vibe for much of the movie.

The effect is somewhat ruined, though, by the appearance of a mobile phone. Until that point, I’d assumed that the film was set in the ’70s, as everything else pointed that way – and it would at least explain the distinct lack of seatbelts (only Stuntman Mike seems to wear one). Ironically, I also found it distracting when the fake scratches disappeared around two-thirds of the way through.

So, for me, Death Proof is a mixed bag. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s not… well, it’s kind of boring. Hopefully, when the original, shorter cut emerges on DVD as part of the full Grindhouse experience, as it surely will, it’ll lose reams of chat and be a better film for it. Besides which, despite spots of confusion among US audiences, I’m not convinced that the UK public are any more likely to ‘get’ the film outside of Grindhouse. As a standalone, the concept is diminished, and the movie could appear self-indulgent.

For now, it’s eyes forward for Planet Terror.

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