DEATH PROOF (2007)
A Reassessment File by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
Last month, I took another look at PLANET TERROR, the first half of the 2007 extravaganza, GRINDHOUSE, [read the review here]. It seems logical to tackle the second half, DEATH PROOF, this month. This one was directed by Quentin Tarantino, and it continued the homage to 70s grindhouse cinema, by using scratches and imperfections, a color drop for an extended period, two instances of repeated lines, and a few quick skips in continuity.
DEATH PROOF didn’t get the same love as PLANET TERROR. Most people were disappointed with it, and a few didn’t seem to know how to process it. As much as I love monster movies, of these two features I actually liked DEATH PROOF better the first time. Tarantino used an unusual method of storytelling for this one. His tale is broken into two distinct chapters, each following a day in the lives of two different groups of girlfriends. In each story, the girls cross paths with a psychotic shadow figure in a black muscle car who’s known as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, THE THING, 1982, STARGATE, 1994, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT, 2015, to name just a few). I loved the structure, and gave the movie the equivalent of four knives when I first saw it.
I’m finding it tough to summarize this movie without mentioning spoiler-y events, since every major move in this tale is a spoiler-y event. We begin with the first group of girls, Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, NINE LIVES, 2005), a radio DJ who’s looking to further her career; Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito, SPIDER MAN 2, 2004), Julia’s cousin who’s only in town for a short while; and Shanna (Jordan Ladd, CABIN FEVER, 2002), Julia’s friend, whose father owns the lake house they’re going to after this night on the town.
Their itinerary consists of drinks at Guero’s, followed by hanging out at the Texas Chili Parlor. The friends chat about all manner of things, avoid getting too close to the group of guys trying to score with them (led by Dov, played by Eli Roth, director of HOSTEL, 2005, and HOSTEL: PART II, 2007), and convince a fourth friend, Lanna Frank (played by stuntwoman Monica Staggs, KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2, 2003 and 2004) to bring them some weed.
Meanwhile, Pam (Rose McGowan, looking completely different from her role as Cherry in the first GRINDHOUSE feature, PLANET TERROR) has been deserted by her boyfriend and is looking for a ride home. The shadow figure at the bar slides his keys to her and says, “Your chariot awaits.” This is our first official introduction to Stuntman Mike, who gradually expands his sphere of influence from Pam to get up close and personal with Jungle Julia and her friends.
At the end of the night, Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and Lanna Frank drive off to the lake house while Stuntman Mike coaxes Pam into his “death proof” car. He explains that the box around the passenger seat is so a director can mount a camera if he wants. Shoot a stunt crash from inside the car. Once Pam is tucked inside, sitting precariously on a metal tractor seat with no seat belts, padding, or air bags, Stuntman Mike high-tails it after Jungle Julia and her friends, with Pam terrified and screaming in the box right beside him.
Spoiler-y scenes ensue, creating the kind of visuals that will stay with you for years.
In the next sequence, we’re introduced to three more girls, enjoying a couple of days off from a movie shoot in town and looking to pick up stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the KILL BILL movies, who plays herself) at the airport. We meet Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, SIN CITY, 2005), a makeup artist; Kim (Tracie Thoms, LOOPER, 2012), a stuntwoman and friend of Zoe Bell; and finally Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, 2016), an actress on stand-by for the next few days.
Stuntman Mike shows up, and starts to insinuate himself in the girls’ plans right away.
Quentin Tarantino has a knack for writing dialogue. He understands how people communicate, and uses lots of lingo and spoken shorthand in his scripts. The issue with DEATH PROOF is that the first group of girls has no real problem to face, either together or separately. Sure, they’re trying to score some weed, and they’re trying not to let any guys know where the lake house is so they can have a pure weekend of “girl time,” but they have no overall purpose to fulfill. To compound matters, they hang around the Texas Chili Parlor for almost half of the movie, chatting aimlessly about this and that. Even after they cross paths with Stuntman Mike, who seems untrustworthy and sinister, but not quite dangerous, there’s no sense of urgency in anything that plays out. When it’s all said and done, this section of DEATH PROOF leaves you empty.
The second set of friends has a lot more on their minds. Zoe Bell, who’s visiting from her native New Zealand, has discovered someone selling a Dodge Challenger in town. She wants to get the guy to let them test-drive it, alone, and then she wants to play a game called “Sailor’s Mast.” This puts her and Kim at odds, because Kim swore she’d never play again. These friends have to come together and work through their differences, which is a damn sight more interesting than listening to the first group talk about music and weed and old boyfriends.
(By the way, “Sailor’s Mast” is when they wrap belts around the doorframes of the car and Zoe holds on to them while riding on the hood at dizzying speeds. Zoe Bell, of course, did all her own stunts, and her work is nail-biting, heart-stopping, and impressive as hell.)
Putting it all together, though, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with this one the second time around. The first chapter dragged and took a lot of time-outs to get through. The emotional involvement ratcheted up in the second chapter, almost making the movie worthwhile, but truthfully it was hard to really get behind Kim, Abbie, and Zoe, because of a very questionable decision they’d made earlier regarding their friend Lee.
Summing up the whole GRINDHOUSE experience, PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF back to back: their throwback homage to 70s Grindhouse Cinema makes this whole project a B-movie from the first frame. It’s a “novelty” movie, and nothing more. It’s playtime for directors Rodriguez and Tarantino, and while you’ll probably have a good time with it, it’s not something that needs to be in your permanent collection.
Anyway… I wasn’t nearly as impressed with DEATH PROOF this time around.
Original assessment for DEATH PROOF: 4 knives
Reassessment for DEATH PROOF: 2 knives
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon