Once upon a time there was this street in Manhattan. 42end Street. Now before you jump up and say; "It's still there." Let me say that no. It' not. Oh, 42nd Street is there. But it's not there. Give me a minute to explain.
Back in the 70's and 80's you could go to 42end Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and on both sides on the street there were nothing but movie theaters. Cheap movie theaters that showed double and even triple features. And when I say cheap I mean $2 or $3 bucks. That's right. You could go see two movies for three lousy dollars and stay in the theater until it closed if you liked. There was this one theater that showed nothing but a triple bill of kung fu movies. The theater that was home to "The Lion King" for many years used to be the raunchiest XXX movie theater in Times Square. These theaters opened early and closed late. Real late. If you had $20 bucks in your pocket you could stay on 42end Street all day long and most of the night cruising from one theater to another until you were all movie-ed out. Of course you shared the theater with potheads, drunks, bottom feeder drug dealers, prostitutes, unemployed men hiding out from the world, teenagers cutting school and their ilk. But if you didn't mess with anybody they generally didn't mess with you. Back in the day the rule of thumb was: "don't start no static, there won't be none". The movie theater staff had the same policy. Folks would light up their joints, pass around 40s of malt liquor, pints of cheap booze, smoke cigarettes openly and put their feet up on the backs of the seat in front of them. But as long as they were cool, the management was cool. In short, the environment was as saturated with depravity as the movies shown.
The movies that were shown in these theaters, which we now popularly and affectionately refer to as "grindhouses" were far from Academy Award winning films. They were Grade B, C, D and more oftentimes than not, Z exploitation flicks. Blaxplotation. Kung fu flicks. Spaghetti westerns. Horror. Italian "giallo" thrillers. Splatter. Made on the cheap and designed to be nothing more than sensational pulp entertainment most of them you forgot the day after you saw them. Oh, there were exceptions, to be sure and a lot of those movies transcended the trash and are still highly regarded to this day. But the 42end Street of those bad old days is gone forever. I know, I know -- people go on and on about it's "safer" now. It's "cleaner". It's more "family orientated" and I'™m all for that. I still think it was more fun back then.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a project called "Grindhouse" where they attempted to give modern day movie goers a taste of what the movie going experience was like back then. "Grindhouse" was made up of two complete and separate films on a double bill along with a handful of fake trailers for equally fake films. The two movies, DEATH PROOF and "Planet Terror" were aged and battered to replicate the way films looked back then since those prints were shipped all over the country from theater to theater and not handled with the best of care. So when they were shown on the screen you had all these scratches and more often than not whole sections of film missing and spliced together. "Grindhouse" even made use of vintage 70's/80's advertisements and theater announcements. It was all designed to be a Valentine to that entire movie era of gleeful sex, violence and gore.
The problem was that a lot of moviegoers didn't get the joke. I remember reading that audience members were confused by the sections of the movie that had "missing reels" and demanded that they see the missing parts or else they wanted their money refunded. Supposedly there were complaints from theater owners about the 3 hr+ running time of "Grindhouse". Whatever the reason; "Grindhouse" was an ambitious experiment that failed at the box office. However the two movies have been released on DVD as separate features.
DEATH PROOF begins with three local girls preparing for a weekend of partying to celebrate the birthday of Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) a local disc jockey. Her two best friends Arlene (Arnessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) go with her to the Texas Chili Parlor where they're going to hook up with Julia's drug connection Lanna (Monica Staggs) and from there it's on to the lake house owned by Shanna's rich daddy. But first the girls have a wild night of drinking, dancing and making out with some of the local guys (one of them played by writer/director Eli Roth) They also meet up with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who claims to be a professional stuntman although he can only credit television shows thirty years old that he supposedly worked on. Stuntman Mike flirts with the girls which earns him a highly erotic lap dance from Arlene who is both intrigued and repelled by the scarred but strangely charming man.
Turns out that Stuntman Mike is not only scarred physically but mentally as well since he's a psychotic sadist who likes killing young woman with his special souped-up 1970 Chevrolet Nova which he proudly boasts is "death proof" as it's been tricked out so that Stuntman Mike can do things like ram another car head on at 120 miles an hour and survive. Whoever is in the other car isn't so lucky. Stuntman Mike proceeds to show off just how deadly his "death proof" car is by killing not only the four girls but also a girl he's tricked into a ride inside the car (Rose McGowan) in a pair of truly horrific scenes.
Cut to fourteen months later. Stuntman Mike is in Tennessee and sizing up four new victims. This time it'™s Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Kim (Traci Toms) and ZoÃ« (ZoÃ« Bell) who are all in the movie business themselves. ZoÃ« is a stuntwoman and wants to do two things; buy a vintage 1970 Dodge Challenger and play a game called "Ship's Mast" in which ZoÃ« lies on the hood of the car, hanging onto two belts while Kim drives down the highway at high speed. Bad time for them to pick to play this game because Stuntman Mike has been stalking them all day and he decides he wants to play as well. But his idea of a fun game is way different from what the girls have planned. Before it's all over, everybody will have gotten their share of playing games.
DEATH PROOF is a way different movie in style and tone from "Planet Terror" in that where "Planet Terror" takes off at Warp Factor Five right from the first five minutes, DEATH PROOF takes it's time to build up to the wild car chase that takes up the last fifteen minutes or so. That's why I advise everybody who plans on seeing these films back-to-back on a single night's viewing (which is really the way to watch 'em) to watch DEATH PROOF first, then "Planet Terror".
DEATH PROOF takes it's time telling it's story and its certainly not boring but Q.T. takes a half hour so that we can get to know the first set of girls before the totally terrifying head on collision with Stuntman Mike's car. Then we're introduced to the second set of girls and Q.T. takes another half hour with the characterization before we get down to their desperate 100 mile an hour road war.
It's a solid movie full of the patented Tarantino dialog we've come to expect and there are extended scenes where it's nothing but people just talking. But since it's Tarantino putting the words in their mouths and the actors are so good at what they're doing I don't think you're going to mind a bit.
Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson and ZoÃ« Bell are the acting standouts in this one, especially ZoÃ« Bell. She's a real life stuntwoman who doubled for Lucy Lawless in "Xena" and for Uma Thurman in the "Kill Bill" movies and she's totally charming here. And that's really her sliding around on the hood of that Dodge Challenger as it's roaring down the highway.
Tarantino wanted to film a car chase without using CGI at all and it's a really excellent car chase. I'm glad to see that some filmmakers still like doing some things Old School: Tarantino put real stuntmen inside of real cars and let them do what they do best. Arnessa Ferlito also does terrific work in this movie. She does a mean lap dance and she looks like Rosario Dawson's younger, sluttier sister.
And like all of Tarantino's movies, the soundtrack is killer. I don't think there's a director working today (okay, maybe Martin Scorsese) who uses music in his movies better than Tarantino. The music he uses in his movie isn't just stuck in there just to fill dead air between dialog scenes. The songs uncannily fit the mood of a scene and get across exactly what emotion Tarantino wants to convey. And I always hear a couple of songs in his movies that I've never heard before from artists I assumed I was fairly familiar with. Such as The Coasters song he uses for the lap dance sequence. I've been listening to The Coasters since I was knee high to a knee as my father was a huge fan of theirs but I've never heard that song before I saw DEATH PROOF.
If I have any complaints with DEATH PROOF it's this: despite Tarantino's desire to make a grindhouse flick in the style of "Vanishing Point" and "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (both of which are referenced several times by the characters) the movie is way too dialog heavy and far too polished to be considered a true grindhouse flick. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that while "Planet Terror" is by far way more fun to watch, DEATH PROOF is technically the better movie and the one that will most likely stay with you for days afterwards. There's just more meat on the bones of this one. And that ending is just too abrupt for me. But then again, "Vanishing Point" and "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" had similar out-of-left-field-what-the-hell endings and I was able to roll with them so I guess I can roll with this one.
So should you see DEATH PROOF? You bet your ass you should. It's not one of Quentin Tarantino's best movies but still, a minor flick from Q.T. is better than a lot of directors' major works. The performances are excellent, that car chase is a doozy and the story is tightly suspenseful. By all means, rent/buy and enjoy.