Death Proof July 18, 2015
The idea of making a modern exploitation movie is a novel one — the frowziness of the era’s heyday is mockable, but can quasi-specific homage actually work as a feature film? The MADTV "Funkenstein" and Mighty Peking Man-esque "Prehistoric Glamazon Huntresses" sketches suggested periodical skits were good enough; it’s easier to turn around and watch Switchblade Sisters or Coffy anyway. So it’s ballsy to make a new kind of exploitation movie. The 1970s are over, after all, and grindhouse cinemas no longer exist. You’ve got to have a great deal of intelligence (and filmmaking strength) to pull off such risky reverence.
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino achieved the impossible in 2007, releasing the double-feature Grindhouse worldwide like it was no big deal. Both edited as if they were pieces of shit Jack Hill or Russ Meyer spliced together, both cheap looking, both subpar when putting the directors’ filmography into perspective, Rodriguez’s zombie ridden Planet Terror provided us with joyous action-horror while Tarantino’s Death Proof voiced a similar spirit to that of Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Backdrop. Neither film is terrific, but hard to deny is just how successful Grindhouse is at making, well, a modern exploitation double feature.
Death Proof has always been my favorite of the two, maybe because I’ve always figured Rodriguez to be Tarantino’s less-talented but still-talented brother from another mother or maybe because I have a weakness for exciting car stunts and female characters with the personality of a pissed-off Tura Satana.
Ironic is how Planet Terror paid homage to the bad and, in the process, seemed bad itself, while Death Proof went out with the same goal in mind and ended up being a good film. Perhaps this is because Tarantino is incapable of making something of pure shoddy quality, or because his screenplays provide nothing except quotable rivers of dialogue.
Death Proof involves a psychopathic stunt driver (who goes by the name of Stuntman Mike) who, while not reliving his glory days, cleverly kills women with his car, which has been built specifically to withstand the fatalities of outrageous crashes. For the first half of the film, he sets his sights on radio host Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her wild pals, who, sooner or later, meet up with him in the worst way possible; the second half finds him stalking stuntwoman Zoë Bell (playing herself) and her posse — a bad decision if there ever was one, considering Bell’s belligerence and the ruthlessness of her tough-as-nails friends.
Many cite Death Proof as Tarantino’s worst film, and it’s understandable, considering the hugely ambitious scopes of his others, the bigger budgets, the more high profile ensembles. Death Proof, cheaply made, girl centric, dialogue driven, straight-forward, hardly has the staying power of Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds — not because it’s average, but because it’s low-key, a break from epic exercises in directorial glory. He’s having fun, not rewriting history — it’s brave for someone as beloved as Tarantino to step down from the high heavens of celluloid fame and make something simple, something most would call an novice’s masterpiece.
But I shouldn’t be calling Death Proof brave — it’s not a stretch, just a gem of small-scale values. The nearly all-female assembly is tremendously cast. Not a part, with the exception of the inexperienced Bell, does anything besides heighten Tarantino’s babes-with-cars vision. The first ensemble, comprising Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jordan Ladd, incite big laughs with their low-class values, their unexpected demises hurting because we want to see more of them. The second, however, positively lights up the screen: Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have remarkable chemistry, with Thoms acting as a fiery, loud-mouthed presence. Russell is persuasive, but the women who eventually avenge his violent attack are what make Death Proof such an unparalleled treat. The final car chase, which sees Dawson, Thoms, and Bell racing after the madman, is riddled with ‘70s styled adrenaline: in an age of action aided by CGI, it’s a pleasure to see that Tarantino would rather stick to the guns of the past instead of taking the easy way out.
Snaky, funny, and bracing, Death Proof is a minor Tarantino project (the only one, as it turns out) that serves as a reminder as to why Tarantino is such an immortal talent — even when he’s taking a break from being the best of the best, he’s still one of the best. B+