Thursday, January 10, 2008

Death Proof (2007)

To call Death Proof bad is not necessarily to criticize it. After all, Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse, a paean to the car chase films of the 60s and 70s, was never intended to be a “good” film. A pastiche of cult classics like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (which is quoted and referenced ad nauseum), Death Proof is intended to be no more than an ode to the no-budget films that frequently played in sleazy, dilapidated downtown theaters prior to the age of the multiplex. It so follows that every one of the film’s weaknesses, from its rambling dialogue and shoddily constructed plot to the intentionally annoying missing scenes and color shifts, could conceivably be considered part of its charm. This presents a unique challenge to anyone who finds cause to criticize Death Proof-- but I’m still going to try.

See, Death Proof doesn’t ingratiate itself to the viewer with its half-baked plot and a healthy dose of sex and violence the way the classic B-pictures of yore did. It doesn’t work because it’s not honest. Those films were fun because the viewer knew that they had been made by novices with a severe lack of time and money, and the bad acting was tolerable because the actors were clearly not professionals. Here, the acting and the production values are incredibly weak, but not for want of funds or talent. It’s simply the result of a terrible script that I can’t imagine Tarantino worked on for more than a weekend, and that he certainly didn’t rewrite.

The story (or so you would think) follows a group of girls who are planning a trip to one of their father’s lake house for a weekend of alcohol drinking and marijuana smoking. Before they leave, they stop at a seedy Austin bar for a preliminary party. Little do they know they’re being stalked by the maniacal Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, looking very much like Snake Plissken), a former movie stunt guy who uses his “death proof” car for acts of vehicular homicide. After interminable scenes of dialogue that seem more at home on a episode of MTV’s “The Hills” than in a film written by a celebrated screenwriter, Stuntman Mike kills the girls by running head-on into them as they drive down a deserted road. We are an hour into the movie by this point.

Every B-movie about a psycho-killer includes the requisite murder scene early on in the plot-- it establishes who the bad guy is and his preferred method of execution. It’s one of the of the most obligatory scenes in all of cinema and even the worst directors know that this should take place at the very least in the first twenty minutes of the movie. Not Tarantino, though. In a film that runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, he uses his first hour as a prologue, and then begins a completely different story afterwards. Perhaps he was trying to follow the example of his pal Eli Roth (featured in an utterly terrible cameo), whose excremental Hostel featured nearly an hour of filler before the actual story started. Unfortunately though, and like that film, Tarantino’s dialogue up until the point of the killing has been so stilted and one-dimensional that it’s almost impossible to care one bit about the quartet of female victims.

The script problems don’t end there. There are also countless plot holes and throw-away characters that are introduced and then abandoned without so much as a single line of dialogue (Roth’s, for instance. I was glad to be rid of him, but where the hell does he go?), although these are more forgivable and can certainly be written off as more cult film kitsch. But Tarantino’s sense of pacing and the way he has chosen to structure the film, with its slow start and inexplicable plot detours, is inexcusable. It simply doesn’t work, especially not as well as his irresistible script for Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn did with its abrupt shift from crime film to drive-in-style monster movie. In fact, that film is an infinitely better example of the grindhouse style than is Death Proof. Tarantino would’ve been better off turning in that script and hoping no one noticed.

After this interminably long opening, the film shifts to a year later, and a new quartet of potential female victims are introduced, this time a group of movie stuntwomen and a ditzy actress. Both the dialogue and the actors are better in this half of the film, but the plot continues to be no more than a formality. Suffice to say, there are a lot of car crashes, but even these were much less exciting or engaging than I expected them to be, especially after hearing Tarantino proclaim in interviews that he wanted to make “the greatest car chase movie of all time.”

Still, although the car chases and Tarantino’s script are big disappointments, there are a few entertaining elements that prevent Death Proof from being a complete failure. The main highlight of the second portion of the film is undoubtedly Zoe Bell, the Kiwi stuntwoman that doubled for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies. She plays herself here, and pulls off a few genuinely thrilling stunts, including one sequence where she is stuck on the hood of a car as it flies down a road at full speed running from Stuntman Mike.

Likewise, Kurt Russell is a treat to watch as Mike, doing a great amalgam of Evel Knievel, John Wayne, and Freddy Krueger. He spends the majority of the film doing nothing but look like a badass, but he shines every time he’s given the chance, the best example coming near the end of the film when he’s shot and is shown moaning and writhing inside his car. This is a nice subversion of the genre, as we actually see the villain suffer the same indignities that his victims are so often subjected to. This is perhaps the nicest touch that Tarantino has to offer in Death Proof: the female leads, whose only job in most B-movies is to run, scream and eventually die, turn the tables on Stuntman Mike near the end of the film and make him the hunted, although even this interesting twist is ultimately undone by the tawdry way that Tarantino chooses to handle it.

In the end, Death Proof proves to be little more than a meaningless generic exercise, the kind of film that has been made countless times and often much more effectively. There’s no doubt that Tarantino relishes the opportunity to pay homage to some of his favorite films, but his tribute comes off as nothing more than a superficial gimmick. Perhaps if he and Rodriguez had been brave enough to tackle the grindhouse idea the honest way-- with nothing-budgets, unprofessional actors and a limited schedule-- then the spirit would have shone through, but as it is the film comes off as a trivial mess. Death Proof may be intentionally amateurish, but that certainly doesn’t change or excuse the fact that it’s a very bad film.


Joshua said...

I haven't seen the film, nor do I ever intend to. You do a nice job of informing me how bad/good the "classic B-pictures" turn out. Halfway through reading it though, I did start to think of From Dusk til Dawn and how the "plot" if you call it that takes an immediate 180 an hour into the film to give you a short story film jam packed full of action the last 30 minutes or so. It seems to me that it's worked for him before and he's made money off of that style, so why the hell not try it again? He probably has many undeveloped stories written down and it appears to be much easier writing 2 shotty stories and band-aid them together than spending the time to come up with 1 good story. Now it seems like he's a washed up band using his "good" name. For instance, bands will put years into their first album and they're typically pretty good; yet, when their forced to make another one in a tenth the time, it's usually garbage compared to the first. I don't know where I could/will take my point, or if I even have one. Though, I'm willing to bet it's not likely this movie had one either.

Anonymous said...

After Amarcord, Death Proof is the single movie that I have watched over and over, so enjoyable did I find it. From beginning to end it is chock a block filled with delectable dialogue and classic scenes. And to top it off the stunts are real car stunts, done by the actual actors/stunt persons, with some of the finest old timers in the business also involved. This movie is loads of fun with and it's obvious that the ensemble cast have had the time of their lives making it. Your movie review for this Death Wish looks like it was made by the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.