A paean to the exploitation films of the 70s, built more for titillation than story-telling, “Grindhouse” especially the Rodriguez sequence is nearly impossibly silly, not necessarily a bad thing, and is certainly not for everyone.
Consisting of two feature length films Rodriguez’s gonzo zombie action film “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s more somber wild girls flick “Death Proof” plus an assortment of fake trailers and commercials, “Grindhouse” tries to conjure up the not-of-the-mainstream vibe of the originals, as viewed through their own particularly lenses. That’s not entirely as straight forward a goal as it might sound as social mores, at least regarding what can and is put on film, have loosened up considerably in the intervening thirty years and what was once shocking is no longer necessarily so. To that end a lot of the over-the-top elements that have been considered intrinsic to the genre have been jettisoned, particularly sex, of which there is none in the actual films.
Which isn’t to suggest that “Grindhouse” is mainstream, it’s certainly not, but it is out of the mainstream in a different way than the films it’s imitating. Classic grindhouse films tend to be largely surface oriented, and where ultimately only about what they could get away with. Rodriguez and Tarantino have wisely decided not to try and remake what they liked best about those old films, but use them in a new way with varying degrees of success including more emphasis on character and taking structural and pacing chances that no studio would ever go for.
Not surprisingly “Planet Terror” is the most straightforward of the two, concerned largely with plot, and characterization largely existing as by-product of the plot. It has a lot of the usual Rodriguez ticks, including mischievous but not particularly interesting family members (by which I mean Rodriguez family members, who has a strong affinity for nepotism) and a tendency towards being juvenile. Although that being said, of all the original screenplays Rodriguez has written, this is probably the best, with interesting set ups and patches of genuinely sharp dialogue that actually remain in the memory afterwards. Actually, the style of the grindhouse film really plays to Rodriguez’s strengths such that things which might be eyebrow raising if not out and out deal breakers like a kung fu mercenary truck driver who keeps an M-16 with a sniper scope handy, or a biochemist with a disturbing tendency to collect his enemies genitals fit in perfectly within the rules he’s playing by.
Rose McGowan, working with a surprisingly decent ensemble, steals the show as a depressed go-go dancer who, just as she’s preparing to embark on a career as a stand-up comedian, looses her leg and has it eventually replaced with a machinegun. And it’s a good thing, as a betrayed special forces lieutenant (Bruce Willis) has just unleashed an airborne toxin that is quickly turning everyone in the surrounding country side into flesh crazed mutants.
Most of the characters, like the irascible barbecue chef J.T. (Jeff Fahey) eternally quarrelling with his brother Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) over his secret recipe for barbecue sauce, are thinly drawn but often manage to work anyway largely because the actors who are having fun and it shows, except for the Black Eyed Peas’ Stacy Ferguson, who is absolutely horrible, but quickly gets her brains eaten by mutant zombies running amok, so we don’t have to put up with her for too long. Particular notice goes to Josh Brolin (who seems to be turning into a clone of Nick Nolte) and his staff of doctors and nurses at the hospital dealing with the outbreak, who bring both tension and some much needed black comic relief to the proceedings.
And Michael Parks returns, in both films, for his fourth outing as the unflappable Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, with a few more facts about his life, introducing his estranged daughter, anaesthesiologist Dakota Block (Marley Shelton).
Needless to say, “Planet Terror” is the more over-the-top of the two films, with an insane premise and equally insane action sequences which, for all their silliness, are perfectly in keeping with the milieu Rodriguez has created. It meanders a bit with multiple subplots early on that are ultimately dropped in favor of mindless carnage, but if it’s not exactly good, it is certainly entertaining.
“Death Proof,” on the other hand, seems to be going for the exact opposite effect, completely flipping the exploitation formula on its head as it trades almost exclusively on character at the expense of a plot. Despite it’s low key nature, of the two “Death Proof” is probably the strangest and the hardest to get a grip on an exploitation film done as a character study.
Kurt Russell theoretically stars as Stuntman Mike, a former stunt driver who uses his supped up car to terrorize and kill young women for sexual pleasure (or so Marshall McGraw believes). I say theoretically because “Death Proof” is more about the two groups of women that he stalks Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her group of Austenite socialites, and makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and her stuntwomen friends on a break from the cheerleader movie they’re making.
Tarantino follows the girls around, documenting the small details of their lives with his usual flair for dialogue and character. “Death Proof” continues the trend he’s been following since “Jackie Brown” with slower conversations and less pop culture oriented, extremely repeatable dialogue, focusing more on reality and less on heightened reality. And then suddenly, into this real world, some rain or more accurately, a ton of Detroit muscle car falls, and just as suddenly leaves. It’s not quite real world grindhouse, but there’s an element of that at play. It’s very good idea, a women’s exploitation film that thoroughly celebrates women.
Unfortunately, the strength of “Death Proof” is also it’s weakness, as all the character work slows down the pace a great deal. As interesting as it is, it’s ultimately not a character study, it’s a movie called “Death Proof” and some tightening is needed. An argument could be made that the long character sections are also building up suspense to the moment of violence, there is certainly a lot of Hitchcock by way of De Palma at play in “Death Proof,” but if that was the intent, it doesn’t really work. If anything the long elements of character building drain tension away, particularly in the first half as the first group of girls are a touch on the dull side. The genre Tarantino’s working in and the way he’s trying to go about it are too disparate, and every so often that causes problems, particularly at the end. It’s certainly interesting, but not always enjoyable.
Whatever flaws there might be, Tarantino has lost none of his touch with directing actors and the work here is as excellent as can be expected. Despite not getting as much time as his co-stars, Russell is a scene stealer as the deranged Stuntman Mike. He’s actually much more interesting than the girls he’s chasing and while I get what Tarantino’s trying to do, this is one of the reasons why it doesn’t quite work.
Things pick up quite a bit in the second half when the movie women arrive. Dawson is perky and funny and Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell (a real life stuntwoman playing herself in her acting debut) have a great deal of chemistry, and bring a lot of fun that’s largely missing from the first half.
“Death Proof” is interesting, particularly as an intellectual exercise in paracinema, but nowhere near the heights of Tarantino’s best work.
The strangest thing about “Grindhouse,” and probably an indicator of why it doesn’t work as well as it might, are the fake coming attractions which are actually the best thing about the whole film. Contributed by Rodriguez and several like-minded colleagues like Edgar Wright and Eli Roth, the trailers for fake films like Roth’s “Thanksgiving” (a disturbing teenage slasher pastiche) or Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” (which literally defies description) completely sum up both the attitude and content of the old grindhouse films and, more importantly, what made them so much fun to watch. I laughed at them about as hard as I’ve ever laughed at anything. The idea really works better as trailers than it does as full length films. A feature length film of fake trailers probably would be dull, but just a few minutes of it are the highlights of “Grindhouse.”
Ultimately, “Grindhouse” is an interesting and occasionally enjoyable exercise that never quite manages to live up to it’s pedigree.
But a full length Marshall McGraw film, that I would pay to see.