Friday, April 13, 2007

"Deathproof": Stale Jiffy Pop

SPOILER ALERT: Those of you who know me know that I am a movie fan. But I’m not a fan of 95% of contemporary American movies. Most of those are extended infomercials—loaded with product placements for soft drinks, ‘designer’ clothes, cars, etc.—or remakes of shitty-to-begin-with TV shows looking to capitalize on preexisting audiences. It takes a lot to get Brother John’s ample posterior into a theater seat. Quentin Tarantino is one of the few American filmmakers who can do that.

Tarantino makes films the way they used to be made—as art, or at least entertainment, not as made-by-committee products to be sold. His films are almost writerly in their style; he’s created a world filled with three-dimensional characters, firecracker language and an order that is utterly unique. Starting with “Pulp Fiction”, I’ve seen every Tarantino film in a theater on its initial release. Saw “Kill Bill Volume One” seven times, I did. Loved them all, I did. I anticipated loving his latest, “Deathproof”, as well.

This time out of the chute, Tarantino has paired his newest opus with another flick crafted by fellow maverick director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”), thus creating a double-feature collectively titled “Grindhouse”. Rodriguez and Tarantino share a love for American B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s. This genre, now as extinct as the dinosaur, flourished during the Nixon-Carter era in urban second-run cinemas called ‘grindhouses.’ It was a category which catered primarily to high school and college-aged males. Cannibal zombies from other planets, homicidal maniacs, graphic violence, car chases and almost-nude nymphs emoting badly were de rigueur. So were damaged, incomplete film prints. This wasn’t intellectual entertainment and it didn’t pretend to be. Occasionally, the grindhouse filmmakers and actors did rise above their cheap-shit circumstances to create works of intelligence and originality (Melvin Van Peeple’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaaasssss Song”). But mostly, grindhouse movies were just dimwitted fun. Or crap, depending on your point of view.

The advent of home video and cable TV did away with grindhouses in the early 1980s. People could enjoy drive-in-style horsepoop in the privacy of their own homes. So, evidently feeling misty for the late and unlamented phenomenon, Rodriguez and Tarantino have taken it upon themselves to recreate that experience for 21st Century film audiences. “Grindhouse” offers 1970s-style trailers for nonexistent films before and in-between both features, scratchy, skippy film stock and frequent “Missing Reel” headers, just like the good ol’ days. The only things missing are rats running up the aisles and drunks snoring in the front rows.

I’m not going to go into the Rodriguez picture, “Planet Terror”. It’s not bad; it certainly captures the look and feel of a 1970s B-grade flick. The amount of blood n’ guts in it, though, makes “Sin City” look like a Disney picture. Beautiful Rose McGowan plays the hell out of her part as a machine gun-legged stripper. Comely Marley Shelton excels, too, as Dr. Dakota Black, who’s really handy with a hypodermic needle. “Planet Terror” also features a surprise cameo by a major action movie star. Beyond that, it didn’t impress me.

The Tarantino selection, “Deathproof”, is the superior of the two films. In a nutshell: four sexy young women, including Sydney Poitier (yes, his daughter) and Jordan Ladd (her mom was on “Charlie’s Angels”) are stalked by scar-faced super-wacko “Stuntman Mike”, played by a scenery-chewing-and-clearly-enjoying-it Kurt Russell. Stuntman Mike is a former TV/movie stuntman (natch) who drives around in a navy blue 1969 Chevy Nova SS outfitted with the safety features of a film stunt-car, which renders it, he claims, “death-proof”. But the twentysomething girls aren’t impressed with old fart Mike (a scrupulous teetotaler) or his barroom tales of stunts performed for stars they don’t know on shows they’ve never seen (Robert Urich on “Vegas”). They give Mike the brush-off. Driving home, the girls crash head-on into a blue ’69 Chevy Nova SS driven by. . .guess who? Only Stuntman Mike survives. And since Mike’s cold sober and the girls weren’t, the local sheriff lets the deranged stuntman walk.

Months later, Mike’s back to his old tricks. Now he’s trailing a different quartet of hotties: movie makeup artist Rosario Dawson, stuntwomen Marcy Harriell and Zoë Bell and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who are working on a nearby film set. Long story made short: the girls visit a goober who’s selling a white 1970 Dodge Challenger. They talk Jethro into letting Zoë, Rosario and Marcy test-drive it. In a stunt soon to be imitated by morons across America, Zoë (a real-life stuntwoman) stretches out on the car’s hood, holding onto only two belts tied to either side view mirror, while Marcy races the Challenger up and down conveniently vacant dirt roads. Rosario rides shotgun and provides “Whew-Hoo, go girl!!” commentary.

Long story made shorter: Stuntman Mike rams the girls’ car from behind several times, as Zoë clings to the hood for dear life. He runs the Challenger off the road; Marcy surprises Mike by pulling a pistol and pumping a bullet into his arm. The women proceed to chase Mike, ramming his car several times and running him off the road. The women tear Mike from the wrecked Nova and take turns beating the snot out of him. Mike’s knocked to the ground; Rosario kills him by jumping on his throat. The end.

Yes, that’s it—really. No profound allegories, no big symbolic undertones, nothing. I realize the bar for this film was set comparatively low, grindhouse genre and all, but come on! And there's nothing new, for that matter. What QT has served up here is basically a mish-mash of his previous efforts. There are long conversations, a la “Pulp Fiction”, set in bars and coffee shops. There are pop culture references aplenty— two young guys in a bar refer to Stuntman Mike as “B.J.” from “B.J. and the Bear”, for example. Nearly-forgotten rock bands? Check. Just before biting the dust, the first set of actresses are seen grooving to a radio pop hit by 1960s British Invasion rockers Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. A supporting part played by a faded 1970s TV star? Yup—Michael Parks of “Then Came Bronson”, recreating the role he played in “Kill Bill” (the aforementioned sheriff).

Somehow, though, it just. . .goes nowhere. Part of the problem is that there are too many logistical holes and unanswered questions. Just why Stuntman Mike does what he does is one of them. He’s just “nutz" with a capital ‘N’, I guess. While plotting was never a strong point in grindhouse movies, it was there. I mean, we all know why Shaft wanted to kick the Man’s ass, right? And Tarantino telegraphs too many of his moves in advance. Example: Rosario Dawson, in the coffee shop scene, refers to Zoë Bell as “Zoë the Cat” for the stuntwoman’s uncanny ability to emerge from dangerous spills unharmed. Then, in case the audience didn’t catch it, Rosario says it two or three times more. And of course, when Stuntman Mike knocks Zoë off the Challenger’s hood into some brush, she comes out with nary a scratch.

“Deathproof” plays like Tarantino wrote the script five minutes before shooting it. It’s tired, lazy filmmaking, plain and simple. Zoë Bell, for example, is billed as playing “herself.” I don’t know how much acting experience she has, but Zoë is charming in this film and has definite screen presence. Why couldn’t Tarantino write her an honest-to-God character to play? And for all the hoo-ha about recreating the grindhouse heyday, “Deathproof” seems stranded halfway between 1976 and 2007. Scratched film, vintage cars and Carter-era cultural references abound, but throughout the movie, characters are seen blabbing on cell phones and text-messaging each other. It’s as confusing and annoying as hell.

I didn’t hate “Deathproof”. Really. It is what it is—a popcorn movie, fast, loose and full of hulls. But when you’re used to gourmet entrees from a master chef, it’s a little jarring to be served up junk food like this. Why a talented filmmaker like Tarantino would waste his time on a knockoff molded in the style of schlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Russ Meyer is a mystery to me. It’s as if Bob Dylan abandoned songwriting to pen TV commercial jingles. They’d be some fine jingles, but—they’d be jingles, for Christ's sake.

Okay, Quentin, I’ll let you slide by for now. But next time, I’ll expect something more substantial from you than stale Jiffy Pop.


Blogger Happy Villain said...

It's about time you posted again!

Wasn't there some huge controversy about movies QT essentially took the credit for but didn't actually write? The early stuff (Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, etc.) was allegedly someone else's brain child? Am I wrong? Because when Kill Bill came out, they were calling it his third movie, or something like that, and everyone was scratching their heads thinking that they'd seen many more than three QT movies.

Anyway, I know there are always controversies like that in Hollywood and QT has put out some very unique and genius stuff, but when you describe this film, I can't help but wonder how much of his previous credit is deserved. Or has he just lost his edge? I guess only time will tell.

7:06 PM  

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