Why would anyone want to revive grade-Z flicks from thirty years ago? Grindhouse answers it in its first three minutes: Machete, the first faux-trailer in the package, offers Danny Trejo as a knife-hurling avenger romping with topless babes and literally shooting through the air on a bullet-spitting chopper. Imagine Michael Peña being able to play juicy leading man instead of earnest stand-by in Shooter (and being able to proclaim "They fucked with the wrong Mexican!") and the outlaw appeal of out-of-the-mainstream films becomes crystal-clear. The sticky floors and seedy halls may be gone, but the subversive charge of exploitation cinema survives while many of their starrier, bigger-budgeted, more tasteful contemporaries have turned to dust. Shamelessly upfront about cashing in on audiences' unsavory appetites, these works were also freed from the heavy mantle of respectability and, vilified by reviewers, swam in seditious ether. When it comes down to it, what mainstream American picture around the same time was allowed to be as political as Night of the Living Dead? Or as incendiary as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song? Or as feminist as Terminal Island? Transcending exploitation fare is the last thing in Grindhouse's rowdy agenda simply because Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino believe, rightly, that "transcending" them would be to miss their essence -- what was once dismissed as schlock is to the directors the equivalent of the Monogram cine-pulp which colored À Bout de Soufflé, brimming with an individuality that warrants not derision but celebration.
Unfortunately, to Rodriguez that individuality boils down to getting away with Hollywood's unwritten no-nos, like killing off children and dogs in an action movie. Indeed, when Marley Shelton, one of many characters on the run from bubbly-skinned zombies in Rodriguez's Planet Terror segment, leaves her young son with a gun and a moment later the kid accidentally blows his head off, the sequence has less to do with either Shelton or her child than with the boundary-stretching recklessness of those drive-in flicks. It's also a botched gag, though, to its credit, the film is awash in successful ones -- the gross-out sequence with medical maniac Josh Brolin munching on a thermometer while examining Nicky Katt's jelly-squirting pustules is very funny, to cite one example of how Rodriguez keeps his synthetic dynamism running even in scenes without exploding vehicles. The problem is, gags are all these moments remain, whether it's Tom Savini placing a wedding ring on a freshly torn finger or Stacy Ferguson turning up as a scooped-clean cranium ("Looks like a no-brainer"). Freddy Rodriguez smolders even when wasting virulent creatures on a pocket-sized bike, and, with a machine-gun fastened to what is left of her go-go-dancing gam, Rose McGowan is her own arresting emblem of camp surrealism. Game as they are, however, the performers ultimately become as bemused as the viewer by the director's monotonous smirk, which, as in such tone-deaf pastiches as Down with Love, 8 Women or The Good German, deduces that the nudging awareness and recreation of a genre's tropes is enough.
The original grindhouse movies had their hands deep in grime; Planet Terror reproduces their roughness (diseased-looking stock, missing reels, frames that stutter out of a scratchy projector), but it is mock-grit, fastidiously evoked via digital effects that in all likelihood cost more than the combined budgets of the down and dirty films being winked at. Among them are Romero's The Crazies, Lenzi's Nightmare City and Cohen's The Stuff, and it's typical of the film's shallow admiration that it can refer to their apocalypses and never grasp their visions of transgressive societal breakdown -- by the time Bruce Willis pops up in military uniform to dutifully name-drop Afghanistan and Bin Laden, the project might as well go whole-hog and become a living-dead installment of the Naked Gun series. Parody is more honestly adopted in the fictional trailers separating the film's two halves. Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S. is a hammy gloss on Jesus Franco, Edgar Wright's Don't breathlessly hurls Hammer and Fulci into a blender, and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving gets points for its sheer, greasy, Mad Magazine glee. Neither slick genre approximation nor spoof, however, Death Proof is purely and simply a Tarantino work from its first image onwards, and to pass to it from Planet Terror is to go from Dumas to Proust. A brief junction of the two halves exposes the contrast: Marley Shelton appears in both and, while Rodriguez uses the antagonism between her and her grizzled sheriff dad (Michael Parks) as set-up for yet another punchline ("No more dead bodies for daddy tonight"), Tarantino lends their single moment together just enough heft to suggest an entire thorny relationship lurking on the edge of his plot.
The misconception about Tarantino is that he is interested not in human beings but in hollow filmic reflections, a notion addressed and challenged. Sydney Poitier's Jungle Julia, one of Death Proof's many gals, drapes herself on a sofa and emulates the Brigitte Bardot poster on the wall, and later, while hanging out at an Austin bar with her posse (which includes Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd), she steps aside to send her beau a text-message and, suddenly, Pino Donaggio's lush theme from De Palma's Blow Out interrupts the T-Rex song emanating from the jukebox. Tarantino is often cast as the Pandora of post-modernist snark, yet one of the most consistent aspects of his work is the utter absence of distancing irony -- cultural allusions, whether Robert Frost or Cannonball Run, are what make the web of our modern being, and neither of these incandescent moments are about "getting" references, but about a vivid woman who can see herself as a vintage sex kitten or the romantic ingénue in a thriller. For all the talk about Vanishing Point, it may seem perverse to note that the film the first half of Death Proof feels closest to is Renoir's A Day in the Country. It isn't just a matter of the filmmaker playing Renoir's Père Poulain as a bartender, but of his patience with every character's distinctive rhythm, the variety of moods (bitchy, randy, deadly, dozy, tender -- so different from Rodriguez's unwavering archness), the lure and danger of intoxication, emotion, and, finally, death. Ferlito carries her delectable air of melancholy outside for a smoke, the parking lot lights are switched on and the black Charger that earlier spooked her materializes amid the rain; inside the bar is its driver, Stuntman Mike (an effortlessly rich performance by Kurt Russell), who charms her with his John Wayne voice before running over her and her pals.
The car crash burns and dissolves the screen, a moment devastatingly suspended in time after which, in one of those sequences that betray the august architecture beneath Tarantino's surface randomness, the film starts anew with a different bevy of would-be victims (Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The first half is dense with neon, rain, and nighttime humidity, the second half takes its spareness from Southern backroads, pale daylight and highway wind -- contrasting doubles, like the two sets of women who find themselves going toe to toe with a killer and his auto ("Icy Hot," reads the logo on his jacket). It's not irrelevant that many of the characters have jobs in the movie industry (Bell, Uma Thurman's stunt-double in Kill Bill, plays "herself"), yet, informed by the director's awe of his actresses -- fetishized, soulful, intimidated, flabbergasted -- this is less his 8½ than his City of Women. Just as the rapt circular pan around the diner table in the beginning of Reservoir Dogs is here injected with estrogen, so is that film's single scene with a female character (a woman dragged screaming out of her car) reversed in a finale of astoundingly complicated sexual intimations. Death Proof is clearly the work of somebody who has ingested Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws, yet it is also more. The Bride in Kill Bill turned human when her super-avenger armor was dismantled, and Stuntman Mike's boogeyman façade gets similarly, transcendentally cracked once predator turns prey in an ending that bleeds distress into exhilaration. The Monster can reveal ignoble humanity in death, much like Ferlito can be resurrected in a split-second outtake during Grindhouse's closing credits. To Tarantino, cinema is a medium of such miracles.
Reviewed April 17, 2007.