Death Proof (2007)

8 May

Grind House (Death Proof)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” was the second of two films (the first directed by Robert Rodriguez) to pay homage to a type of ’60-‘70s exploitation film known as the “grindhouse,” which was commonly made for drive-in theaters. The films were made with very little money and usually bad quality in the filmmaking and acting department. They have since been accepted as guilty pleasures. Rodriguez and Tarantino are apparently among those fans, and these two films they created (released as a “Grindhouse” double-feature) are practically their love letter to the type. It’s not conventional in the slightest (compared to what we’re used to now), and it’s all about cheese, pulp, sex, and gore.

There are two main differences between Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” however. Rodriguez’s intention was to make a bad film with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the splatter-movie/zombie-flick that goes incredibly over-the-top. Tarantino plays it straight with a sincere approach in his story. “Death Proof” was the true attempt to make a “grindhouse” production.

It seems as if Tarantino was tailor-made for this type of film. It’s oddly-structured, incredibly over-the-top, and fast-and-furious in its filmmaking style, which is everything Tarantino pushes to great effect in his films.

“Death Proof” stars Kurt Russell as a psychopathic stuntman, aptly named Stuntman Mike. He revels in extremities and drives a kick-ass muscle car that is guaranteed “100% death-proof.” He hangs out at a bar where several loud, obnoxious young women (with whom the film spends a lot of time with before introducing us to Stuntman Mike) are hanging out on a road trip. He picks up one of the women, takes her for a drive in his car, and gives her a ride she’ll never forget…because she’ll be dead. (Apparently, to feel the edge of a “death-proof” car is to sit in the driver’s seat.) He then performs a dangerous stunt that claims the lives of her friends, before focusing on another group of women about a year later.

For the first half-hour, we’re subjected to the girls’ chitchat amongst each other in a flat attempt to establish character development. While there are some good Tarantino-esque lines (or rather, “conversations”), I have to admit I didn’t care much for these people. And I was hoping that Stuntman Mike would show up a lot sooner so that he could dispose of these nymphs ahead of time.

Then, the film switches gears and follows a whole other group of young women. While they’re about as compelling as the first group, they at least have the honor of having New-Zealand-stuntwoman Zoe Bell among them. The idea of this striking young stuntwoman (who was Uma Thuman’s stunt-double in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies) taking center-stage (and playing herself) in a movie about a psychotic stuntman brings numerous possibilities, and while it doesn’t follow through with all of them, it still brings about the most important aspect—squaring off against Stuntman Mike, giving him a worthy opponent.

Bell and her friends (played by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thorns) come to a Tennessee town to test-drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T and perform a dangerous stunt known as “Ship’s Mast” (which requires Bell riding on the car’s hood with leather straps to hold on to). Then, Stuntman Mike comes along and messes around with them, endangering their lives. But with the extremist attitude these girls have, this may end up being his biggest mistake…

That’s the payoff to “Death Proof” and it’s a damn good one. In fact, the whole second half is the best thing about “Death Proof.” The conversations are pure-Tarantino; the intensity is taken up a notch once the women and Mike engage in their stunt-driving; and it just feels like an engaging “grindhouse” feature. If the first half represents everything people hate about the “grindhouse” element, then the second half represents what everything loves about the “grindhouse” element. Tarantino set out to deliver a love-letter to this type of film; for the most part, he succeeds.

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