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To Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez it must have seemed like a great idea at the time. Both huge fans of going to see a double bill of exploitation movies in the 70s, they decided to recreate the experience for today’s movie-going public. The only problem was that just as times change so do the people, and while QT and RR would happily sit through movies from dusk till dawn and beyond, the idea of a two-movie three-hour-plus extravaganza doesn’t appeal to Joe Public any more. Too bad nobody told them.

It turned out that the Grindhouse experience suffered much the same fate as last year’s Snakes On A Plane—bloggers loved the idea, but bloggers don’t always get off their asses and go to the cinema. As a result, the Weinstein company has struggled to market Death Proof and Planet Terror and now they’re showing up on DVD separately but in their entirety. With Death Proof the first to appear, how does it stack up on its own?

Death Proof

Feature


Kurt Russell is Stuntman Mike, a badass Hollywood old-timer with a thing for young girls. But he doesn’t like to seduce them. He gets his kicks stalking them then killing them with his car, which has been souped-up to protect him from death in any crash, hence the title Death Proof. However, he runs foul of the wrong gang of babes who turn the tables on him and force the hunter to become the prey.

In his interviews before the release of Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino offered a glimpse into how his mind works when he’s writing a movie. First of all, he has his ‘movie universe’, which is inhabited by the characters of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (and probably True Romance and Natural Born Killers based on character names and relationships in those movies). Then he has his ‘movie-movie universe’, which is essentially a name for the movies that the characters in his movie universe would go to the cinema to see. Kill Bill is the first of those movies and Death Proof undoubtedly belongs in the movie-movie section of his catalogue.

In more way than one, Death Proof is a movie of two halves. Two groups of girls are targeted by Stuntman Mike and the first group’s storyline finishes just before the halfway point, after which we fast forward in time and meet the second gang of babes. The audio and video presentation is different in each part. The picture of the first story is purposely dirty, scratched and there are intentional mistakes in the editing. The second half begins with a section in black and white then cuts to brilliant colour through to the end. It is almost as if the movie were intended to be watched in two parts, with an interval in the middle to allow the viewer to get more drinks and popcorn.

Death Proof
Reservoir Dogs aside, this is Tarantino’s shortest movie yet (counting Kill Bill Vol. 1+2 as one movie) and strictly speaking, it should be a hell of a lot shorter. In simple terms, it is just a slasher movie. It should introduce the characters, the killer should kill some of them, and then the killer should be killed, all within an hour and a half. But that wouldn’t make it a Tarantino movie, would it? One of the reasons we watch Tarantino movies is to enjoy the verbal to-ing and fro-ing of characters written by a man who loves to talk, even though we all know no one in the real world talks like that apart from the director and the characters in his movies. If you were to remove all the long and seemingly pointless but still highly enjoyable conversations, you would probably be left with a standard ninety-minute slasher movie, but efficiency in the running time isn’t what we’ve come to expect from this director.

The indulgences in his screenplay are mostly welcome, although the need to establish the relationships between the second group of girls does mean that the middle section of the movie takes a little too long to get going. What is interesting is that some lines from Tarantino’s earlier movies make an appearance. This reinforced my theory that this is a movie the characters from his movie universe would watch. Plenty of people quote lines form their favourite movies, so why wouldn’t Jules from Pulp Fiction quote a line from Death Proof if it was one of his favourites?

Death Proof
The indulgences don’t stop at the screenplay. If you like cars and feet, this is the movie for you. It’s well-known that Tarantino has a thing for female feet, especially those belonging to Uma Thurman. The opening shot (accompanied by the fake alternative title Thunder Bolt) is of a pair of feet sitting on a dashboard, which goes some way to explaining the director’s motivation for making the movie. He wants to make a movie with fast cars and sexy girls, and we all know which part of girls QT finds sexiest.

Even though the intellectual standards he sets for his movie-movies are lower than his 'regular' movies, Tarantino maintains the same standards for his direction. Every shot is meticulously composed, from the brand names on the beer bottles to the shadow in the wrinkles on Kurt Russell’s face. The choice of music is excellent as well, reflecting the era of the movies he is paying homage to, even if the contemporary setting (including the use of mobile phones) feels very occasionally out of place for a movie inspired by the style of the 70s.

One thing that separates Death Proof from every other car-chase movie is the fact that the main star did her own stunts. After all, the character of Zoe Bell in the second part of the movie is played by none other than… Zoe Bell, a professional stuntwoman who was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill. The role gives her the opportunity to show off her acting abilities but most of all the fact that she’s one of the best stunt people in the world. The final confrontation between Stuntman Mike and Zoe and her friends begins with Zoe hanging onto the bonnet of their car and the fact that she did all her own stunts means that Tarantino could film shots of her face, which is usually only achieved by CGI, something that he wanted to avoid at all costs.

Death Proof
The rest of the cast all bring their roles to life, some of them Tarantino alumni, others newcomers to his brand of filmmaking. As was the case with Zoe Bell, some of the characters were written specifically for certain actors and actresses, for example Vanessa Ferlito is the Brooklyn babe Butterfly. Michael Parks shows up in the same role he played in Kill Bill and would threaten to steal the show if he had been given any more screen time than his one scene that only serves to tell us about Stuntman Mike. Kurt Russell is clearly having a great time playing the bad guy, especially when he turns from a homicidal maniac into a whiny little girl when the tables are turned on him.

Now, I haven’t seen Planet Terror yet, and living in the UK I haven’t been lucky enough to be able to take in the whole Grindhouse experience so I can’t tell you how this version compares with the original vision. What I can tell you is that Death Proof is great fun. It has the concept of an average horror movie but the final product has been created by a director whose talent is anything but average. Yes, it is indulgent, more so than any of his previous movies and probably less rewarding overall. That doesn’t mean it’s his worst movie, it’s just his second-best movie-movie.

Death Proof

Video


Dirt, scratches, wobbly picture—it’s all here but just in the right places. Of course, Death Proof is supposed to look bad and it does, gloriously bad. There’s something nicely nostalgic about watching a movie that is meant to look like it has been fed through a projector a thousand times. However, the complaints the projectionists received when Grindhouse hit US cinemas was a tell-tale sign that QT and RR were every so slightly out of touch with their potential audiences. I love it though, and it’s almost disappointing when the movie switches to black and white, and then to super-high quality during the second half. What this does mean is that the picture really shows its quality and we get a clear, colourful anamorphic picture that doesn’t lose any detail with the fast movement of the final chase.

Audio


As with the picture quality, the audio sounds great when it’s supposed to and appropriately bad only when the director says it should. There are nice touches when there are ‘faults’ in the negative to remind you that you’re watching a dodgy print. The balance of music, dialogue and effects is never a problem and it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into putting the soundtrack together. The engines of the cars sound especially powerful, in particular after the picture switches from black and white to colour.

Death Proof

Extras


Disc one of this two-disc set contains trailers for Death Proof, Planet Terror, 1408, Feast and Black Sheep, along with a gallery of posters for Death Proof from around the world. Disc two contains a selection of featurettes that focus on the different aspects of the making of the movie. Interviews with the cast and crew and behind the scenes footage feature in all of them, but it is the interviews with Quentin Tarantino that make these featurettes so watchable. He has so much passion and excitement for his work and movies in general that it’s difficult not to be drawn in by his enthusiasm.

‘Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof’ goes into the details of how the car chases and stunts were filmed, including interviews with the expert stunt drivers who have been risking their lives for many years. It’s clear that if a stunt wasn’t physically possible, they wouldn’t use CGI or any other tricks to get the shots they wanted.

‘Introducing Zoe Bell’ is a spotlight on the stuntwoman who Tarantino gave two big chances to—in Kill Bill and a lead role in Death Proof. We get to see her preparing for her scenes and interviews reveal that she was more worried about the ‘talky stuff’ than the death-defying stunts.

Death Proof
In ‘Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike’ Quentin Tarantino discusses his reasons for favouring Kurt Russell for the lead role, which go back to his love of John Carpenter movies. Interviews with Kurt Russell himself reveal that of all the directors he’s worked with in his long career, he’s never had such a ‘truly great experience’ as he did while working on Death Proof.

‘Finding Quentin’s Gals’ shows the work that went into casting the member of the two groups of girls. ‘The Guys of Death Proof’ does the same for the male members of the cast, with interviews with Michael Parks and Eli Roth.

‘Quentin’s Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke’ is a tribute to the editor Tarantino has worked with since Reservoir Dogs and includes a gag reel of sorts. Also included in the second disc are the full length version of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s rendition of ‘Baby It’s You’ and a trailer for Double Dare, a documentary about stuntwomen featuring Zoe Bell.

Death Proof

Overall


On its own, Death Proof is still a great movie and there is plenty to reward repeat viewings. Most of all, it’s an after-the-pub movie by Quentin Tarantino that, at under two hours, won’t keep you up all night. This transfer looks and sounds just as it should, with the right mix of good and bad quality where appropriate. Tarantino has an odd habit of only recording commentaries for other people’s movies but the range of extras here complements the movie and enhances the viewing experience. Sure, the full Grindhouse experience is guaranteed to appear on DVD one day but this release is still worth picking up, especially since the full version of Kill Bill took over three years to arrive.


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