Hum. Well, if I’m honest, I was dreading watching this film, because I didn’t think I’d like it. I’ve read so many interviews lately, both with Tarantino himself and with various cast members, where they all talked up how great Tarantino is with dialogue, and how he doesn’t make many films so that when he does, they’re properly amazing, and how much he loves and understands women … frankly, it was all ringing a little hollow to me. I practically had to be coerced into sitting down to watch Death Proof, so it was a surprise when I actually quite enjoyed the first half of it.
The splitting of Grindhouse into two features has been discussed to death, so I can skip over that now. Suffice it to say, once upon a time this was supposed to be a much shorter film, played back to back with a Robert Rodriguez film with some fake trailers in between. However, thanks to unfavourable audience reactions it was re-edited and released into the wild by itself. Without seeing Planet Terror, the other half of the double bill, I can’t definitely say whether this was a smart move or not, but Death Proof has definitely lost some of its cool as a result.
In particular, the loss of the word Grindhouse from the title is kind of a shame, since the first half of Death Proof tries so hard to recall the grindhouse tradition – despite blatantly being shot recently, on a good camera, the film has been made artificially grainy; there are blips in the action and missing frames; there are two title cards, and lots of other self-conscious nudgenudgewinkwinky references to the genre. Weirdly, halfway through this conceit is abandoned in favour of making a completely normal-looking movie – for no discernible reason. It’s jarring, particularly since this is after the colour randomly disappears for a few minutes, again for no discernible reason. But who am I to question Tarantino, eh?
In terms of style, this is very much a Tarantino movie, in spite of all the genre homages. Actually, that should be at least partly because of all the genre homages, since Tarantino is nothing if not a film student. He knows movies, and he wants to make damn sure that you know about it. He’s also known for writing snappy dialogue, and, at least in the first half of Death Proof, he’s done so. Characters emerge – not particularly original ones, but characters nonetheless – and almost realistic conversation is had. Although nothing happens for a very long time, it’s still somehow quite entertaining. Then it all goes tits up. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so, back to the beginning…
Three young girls, one of whom is a local celebrity, are setting out for a few days of fun – drinking, partying, the usual movie youth nonsense. Unfortunately, on their first night on the town, they run into Stuntman Mike. As his name implies, Stuntman Mike is a stuntman – he used to do car stunts for movies, and he still drives a rather iconic car. Big, black, and old-fashioned, with a skull and lightning bolts emblazoned on the bonnet, it’s an intimidating looking vehicle. And well it should be, because it’s been so completely reinforced that it is supposedly, say it with me, death proof. Unfortunately, one too many blows to the head has irrevocably damaged Stuntman Mike’s brain, so that his idea of fun is to stalk pretty young girls and then kill them by repeatedly smashing his car into theirs.
So after 45 minutes of girls talking, drinking, and trying not to get picked up by some sleazeballs (hi, Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino!) Stuntman Mike finally gets to stop being just slightly creepy and be properly frightening, engineering a spectacular slow-motion car crash in which all of the girls who’ve been built up to be the film’s main characters get killed in a variety of gory ways. This is, it has to be said, pretty awesome. It’s violent, sure, but it doesn’t linger over the deaths; there’s no torture (not even of the audience) and it’s almost scary, even.
Draw a line under the movie here and it was quite good, if a little pointless. But, unfortunately, there’s the second half still to go.
The second half moves the film’s timeline on by a year and a bit, shifts the location out of Texas and into Tennessee, and introduces a new group of girls. Except they’re not really a new group of girls at all – they’re a new group of actresses, playing pretty much the same characters as in the first half of the movie. Only this time, the girls are part of a film crew, including a couple of stuntwomen. Seriously, all of the character traits established in the first half have just been ported straight over into these new characters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where this was done before, and for good reason – it’s really fucking lazy, and really fucking annoying. There’s even a second one who hangs her bare feet out of the car’s window all the time (wanna make that fetish of yours a bit more obvious, Quentin?).
Something bad happened to the quality of the writing, directing and editing here. As annoying as the contrived blips and scratches on the film in the first half were, they’re nothing compared with how pointless and self-consciously awful everything about the second part of this movie is. Also, that snappy dialogue has been replaced with endless scenes of people talking about nothing while my attention span wanders and I start making shopping lists in my head. Eventually, as was obviously always going to happen, Stuntman Mike and the bizarre stuntclones get into a stunt-off so that Mike can get his comeuppance, but it’s needlessly drawn out for what feels like hours, tension dissipating by the second.
Every ounce of goodwill Death Proof had built up during its first half is wasted – and then some. The latter half of this movie is dreadful. It’s just so incredibly, aggravatingly pointless. Badly written, badly directed, just bad. The only reason anyone thinks this is good is because Quentin Tarantino’s name is on it. It’s infuriating, particularly because there are some really good ideas in this movie that have been pissed entirely away.
Even the badass logo on Stuntman Mike’s car mysteriously disappeared between the first and second parts, taking with it everything that was decent and clever about this film.
If you’ve got deja vu, that’s probably because Danny already reviewed Death Proof for us after he saw it at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He liked it a lot more than Sarah did, too.