Quentin Tarantino’s weirdly audacious “Death Proof” is yet another example of the acclaimed filmmaker recapturing a slice of cinema history. This time he sets his sights on the old grindhouse theater experience. “Death Proof” released in theaters in 2007 as one-half of a schlocky B-movie twin-billing (Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” was the other film). This was common for the grindhouses that popped up throughout the 70’s but were mostly gone by the late 90’s.
For the most part grindhouse movies were cheaply made exploitation flicks, notorious for their low production value and bad print quality. “Death Proof” sees Tarantino attempting to capture two key facets of the genre. He writes his screenplay to resemble a bad movie you would see in those cut-rate theaters. But he puts just as much effort into making his film look and sound like it has been pulled from a time capsule. Crackling audio, grainy video, missing frames – it all makes for an eye-catching aesthetic which is inexplicably dropped around the midway point for no discernible reason at all.
“Death Proof” is a film of two halves. Both have striking similarities yet one is considerably stronger than the other. The first half starts with three friends Arlene, Shanna and Julia (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, and Sydney Tamilia Portier) heading to a bar on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. There they meet up with Lanna (Monica Staggs) and the four begin their night of partying.
Unfortunately for them they also meet a grizzled Hollywood stuntman appropriately named Stuntman Mike (a fantastic Kurt Russell). He’s an odd bird with a clear affection for menacing muscle cars and messy nachos. He takes notice of the young women in the bar and after a handful of snappy back-and-forths filled with Tarantino’s signature dialogue, the four friends drive off into the night. Unfortunately for them so does Stuntman Mike.
Up to this point “Death Proof” is hitting most of its marks. Aside from being fairly shallow and unashamedly trashy, Tarantino creates a cool blend of nostalgia and style that allows him to show off his inner film student. So much of what he does both technically and narratively hearkens back to the grindhouse genre. And his character work is equally effective. This is especially true for Russell who has a ton of fun in a role that seems custom-made for him.
If things ended there it would be a pretty satisfying foray into B-movie exploitation cinema. But there is the second half and that is where the film’s momentum grinds to a halt. There is this weird transition that takes place both visually and from a story standpoint. Tarantino jumps ahead fourteen months and moves from Austin to Lebanon, Tennessee. He moves his focus to four new women played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoe Bell. They each work in the movie business (two of them stunt drivers) and are on break from a nearby film shoot.
Unfortunately their story is pretty lightweight. Tarantino is never able to muster a reason for us to be interested in them aside from their no-nonsense, tough-as-nails personalities. This is perhaps best illustrated in a diner scene clearly influenced by “Reservoir Dogs” down to the way it’s shot. It’s a drawn-out dialogue-driven sequence that could have worked if the characters had anything interesting to say. It’s a real momentum killer.
We’re left hungering for their inevitable encounter with Stuntman Mike who once again has his eyes set a group of unsuspecting young women. The big difference here is that these women fight back. It leads to the much talked about finale featuring some impressive practical effects and classic stuntwork despite being utterly ridiculous. It makes for a mildly satisfying ending but nothing particularly memorable.
And that’s something that could be said about “Death Proof” as a whole. Despite it’s throwback cinema bells and whistles, a pretty good first half, and a really fun Kurt Russell performance, the movie ends up losing steam and the second half can’t maintain the spark of the first 45 minutes or so. It’s a shame because there are some fun, nostalgic ideas throughout. But they aren’t enough to keep Tarantino’s eyes on the road.
VERDICT – 2 STARS