Monday 22 October 2007

Death Proof (2007)

Monday 22 October 2007
Writer & Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike), Zoe Bell (Herself), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy Ross), Vanessa Ferlito (Artlene/Butterfly), Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Jungle Julia), Tracie Thoms (Kim Mathis), Rose McGowan (Pam), Jordan Ladd (Shanna), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee Montgomery), Quentin Tarantino (Warren), Marcy Harriell (Marcy), Eli Roth (Dov), Omar Doom (Nate), Michael Staggs (Lanna Frank), Jonathan Loughran (Jasper), Marta Mendoza (Punky Bruiser), Tim Murphy (Tim The Bartender), Michael Parks (Earl McGraw), Electra Avellan (Crazy Babysitter Twin #1), Elise Avellan (Crazy Babysitter Twin #2), Marley Shelton (Dr Dakota McGraw Block) & Nicky Katt (Counter Guy)

A crazed stuntman stalks groups of women, slaughtering them in high-speed crashes in his "death proof" car...

Released in the US as a Grindhouse double-bill feature, alongside Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror -- Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof was released worldwide on its own, in a recut and extended form. The reason was simple: Grindhouse bombed in the States. Big time. American audiences just didn't want to watch two films in one sitting, let alone two films with intentionally scratchy aesthetics and B-movie plots...

Kurt Russell headlines Tarantino's love-letter to the 70s grindhouse as Stuntman Mike, a grizzled, scarred stuntman who has souped-up his black Charger so it's "death proof" (well, if you're in the driver's seat). Mike's car is also his weapon/penis, as he stalks various "girlfriends" across the country, then slaughters them in high-speed crashes, which only he can survive...

Death Proof boils down to two long, dialogue-heavy sequences, alternated with a visceral car crash and tense car chase. The first group of lambs to vehicular slaughter are party girls at a Texan bar. Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) is the first to sense something isn't quite right about barfly Mike, although he charms her into a lapdance, before Pam (Rose McGowan) becomes his first victim, after accepting Mike's offer of a lift home...

As you expect with most Tarantino films, Death Proof contains an abundance of dialogue -- most of which is superfluous or so knowingly-hip it could never be spoken by real people. This being a film existing in a warped film-universe, I can accept unlikely dialogue, but I can't accept an action flick struggling for nearly an hour without a sniff of car carnage. Only some Tarantino goodwill, neat foreshadowing, and Kurt Russell's magnetic performance, carries you through this early stage.

When it finally comes, the first crash sequence is brilliantly conveyed through a series of action-replays -- each focusing on a different victim's gruesome fate -- with one closing their eyes, almost in anticipation of a lover's kiss as Mike's car impacts...

One dismembered leg and sliced-off face later... and Death Proof begins to struggle. After a pointless scene with Sheriff McGraw (Michael Parks; again reprising his character from Kill Bill and From Dusk Till Dawn), the movie essentially repeats itself -- with girls who fight back against Mike's terror; played by Rosario Dawson (Sin City), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Die Hard 4.0), Tracie Thoms (The Devil Wears Prada) and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell.

Quentin Tarantino's film perhaps worked better in its original, shorter cut, as Death Proof is in definite need of a trim. His ear for dialogue has lost its Pulp Fiction sharpness, proving only sporadically memorable. The words are certainly not enough to keep you engaged in an action film that contains very little raw action.

In aping grindhouse cinema, Tarantino's film is purposefully afflicted with everything that made those 70s films so trashy, brainless and often tedious. No amount of '07 energy and technique can rescue Death Proof from itself, despite signs even Tarantino becomes less-enamoured with the process -- as the movie's scratchy film stock and bad edits practically disappear in the second half.

Kurt Russell is good fun as the villain, even if Mike loses his calm ferocity and becomes cowardly once he's on the receiving end of vengeful girls in their white Challenger. Vanessa Ferlito is perhaps most memorable as a bee-stung lipped babe in the first half, but Zoe Bell also impresses with a fun, natural performance in the second half.

Beyond them, nobody is particularly bad, but nobody makes a big impression because every character is merely a mouthpiece for Tarantino's dialogue. All the female characters are essentially the same person, spouting the same style of verbal diarrhoea. There are also some uncomfortable decisions from supposed friends -- particularly when three girls take a car for a test drive and allow their friend to stay behind with a hillbillie who's been led to believe she's a promiscuous pornstar!

Stylistically, Tarantino retains his ability to take old-fashioned movie genres and imbue them with modern relevance and excitement. Whenever Death Proof gets down to business with its crashes and chases, things definitely perk up. The atmosphere and look of the film is also a plausible update of 70s-era low-budget turds, only with girls whipping out mobile phones and discussing Italian Vogue magazine...

Ultimately, I was mostly disappointed. Death Proof is undoubtedly Tarantino's worst movie so far -- a one-note idea that would make a great episode of a pulpy TV series, but was instead stretched to nearly 2 hours. I assume the original edit, as part of the intended Grindhouse experience, would have helped with the tedium, but I can't imagine it being a vast improvement.

When a filmmaker is given the resources to recreate a film genre only a minority are interested in -- this is what happens. Tarantino shouldn't have been surprised the masses failed to find entertainment in something that has its roots in a grotty sub-genre of bad films. As intended, Death Proof is a fine example of grindhouse cinema -- and deserves similar consignment to history as an unsightly blemish on cinema.

Dimension Films
114 minutes