Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"You wanna get hot?"

There is something great about low-budget exploitation movies. It’s not a mysterious thing. They’re just kind of awesome. The lack of studio over-sight means they tend to be pretty uncensored. The lack of budget means the better ones tend to be pretty innovative. And, at the most basic level, they’re just badass.

I was pretty excited when I heard about Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the by-gone days of exploitation cinema. Unfortunately, a busy schedule and a 3+ hour runtime (due to the Alamo serving beer during movies, more runtime means more beer, which means bigger bill) kept me from seeing it in the theaters. Following its notoriously poor showing at the box office, and the Weinstein’s notorious run of bad financial luck, meant the double-feature was split for the DVD release in an attempt to recoup more money. So, when I finally got around to watching it, I had to watch one at a time. I started with Tarantino’s Death Proof, buying into the notion that it was the better of the two. I have yet to see Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, so my take will have to wait.

Given that plot isn’t really key here (nor is there really much of a plot to talk about), I’ll just get it out of the way now. Kurt Russell plays an ex-stuntman named, appropriately enough, Stuntman Mike. He drives his “death proof” muscle cars around, chasing, terrorizing, and vehicularly murdering beautiful young women. That’s about it.

There are a lot of things to like about Death Proof. As an Austin resident, the first half was fantastic. Shot on location in Austin, the first forty minutes elicited plenty of “been there” and “I know where that is” mental checks. Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios are famously located in Austin, and Tarantino’s close friendship with Rodriguez means he’s a surprisingly common guest. He definitely has a good feel for our fair city. It might not be a universal appeal, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the city represented so well.

The movie itself is filled with more or less typical Tarantino dialogue. Pop culture and profanity abound in the talk-heavy segments of the movie, leading into some of the greatest chase scenes and car stunts I have ever seen. No one is going to walk into this movie wanting to hear characters talk endlessly, and no one is going to leave talking about the dialogue. It’s all a means to get us to the meat of Death Proof’s appeal. The cars. The stunts. The crashes.

Tarantino, notoriously resistant to digital effects, opts for classic ‘70s style stunts. There are no enormous explosions. Cars hit cars. Metal twists and glass breaks. Tires squeal and smoke billows. No ridiculous CGI nonsense that is usually more distracting than cool. This is all to an amazing end. There are two chase scenes that will get your heart pumping, probably unlike any more has before.

First time actress, long time stuntwoman, Zoe Bell turns out a performance that is more impressive than any I’ve seen in a long time. As an actress she is almost immediately likeable. She’s naturally charming to the point where it requires no work on the part of the audience or the director to make us like her. We just do. As a stuntwoman, doing her own stunts obviously, she is jawdroppingly ballsy. The first of the aforementioned car chases has her doing some of the craziest stunts I have ever witnessed. Not since watching Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (way back in 1928) have I been so convinced that not only are the things I’m watching look dangerous but in reality were dangerous to film. There are no “that looked crazy, must have been tough to do”, it is all “how did she not die while filming that?!” I won’t ruin what exactly some of these stunts are, but watching Zoe Bell alone is reason enough to rent Death Proof.

If a badass stuntwoman doing insanely dangerous things isn’t enough to get you into this movie, a badass Kurt Russell should help tip the scales. Stuntman Mike is a coolly bizarre psycho that is immediately fun to watch. I wouldn’t say Russell’s performance is necessarily good acting, as much as the fun he obviously had playing the character is immediately contagious. He sneers. He spouts ridiculous, cool, tough-guy talk. Just when you think watching him can’t get any more fun, the 180 the character takes after the first chase is absolutely incredible.

Death Proof definitely has its problems, though. Surprisingly, its biggest problems are the dialogue and acting. I’m not sure if it was purposefully written and acted this way (my guess is that it was, given the terrific dialogue Tarantino has previously written and fantastic performances he has previously elicited), but it all seems to be done to further emulate the old exploitation movies. Ultimately, a lot of the dialogue seems stilted and awkward and a lot of the delivery comes across as forced and uncomfortable. Even if it is an attempt to continue the throwback motif, it doesn’t make it any less annoying or distracting. The constant name-dropping of the old movies Death Proof is trying to ape gets old after the first time someone brings up Vanishing Point. I don’t need to hear for a fifth time how great Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is. Finally, a small but minor annoyance is how bizarrely anachronistic the movie can be. It looks like the ‘70s. It sounds like the ‘70s. But everyone has cell phones and iPods. Minor thing, but I found it distracting.

All in all, I’d have to say that Death Proof is a good, not great, movie. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars. That being said, though, I would say that it’s a must see. If that makes sense. It won’t go down in history as a fantastic movie, just a couple of fantastic car chases. I’d bet you’ll walk away from this movie thinking it was good (not great), but you’ll definitely be glad you saw it.

No comments: