Joe picks up our Quentin Tarantino coverage with the man’s most divisive work to date.
Who made it?: Quentin Tarantino (Director/Writer/Co-Producer), Elizabeth Avellan, Erica Steinberg (Co-Producers), Dimension Films/Troublemaker Studios/ Rodriguez International Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Rose McGowan, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Tagline: “A White-Hot Juggernaut At 200 Miles Per Hour!”
IMDb rating: 7.1/10.
Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the grindhouse and exploitation genre began life as two full-length features tied together by a series of trailers for fake movies. The films were Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. The mid-point trailer sequence featured contributions from Edgar Wright, Eli Roth and, unfortunately, Rob Zombie. One of them, Machete, has since been converted into a real movie by Rodriguez. After its release in the US and Canada, the decision was made to separate Grindhouse, and Tarantino premiered Death Proof at Cannes in 2007. A two-hour version was shown at the film festival, after Tarantino incorporated an additional half-hour of footage into the film for its international release. This took what was supposed to be a throwaway companion piece and asked it to stand on its own, resulting in long stretches of inertia.
Death Proof opened to largely negative reviews. Film4’s Ben Cobb called the film “uninspired” and suggested that it would have benefited from “a genuine grindhouse-sized budget,” as a deterrent against its director’s “self-indulgent” quirks. James Christopher of The Times lays the blame on the film’s “appalling dialogue” which “fails to sell interest in a single character.” Surprising, as a staple of Tarantino’s films has always been his riveting use of the English language. Take, for instance, the scene from Pulp Fiction where gangsters Vincent and Jules travel to retrieve their boss’ briefcase. Rather than simply cutting to the moment they arrive at their destination, the scene catches the pair mid-conversation and proceeds to eavesdrop on their discussion for much longer than would be considered normal in cinema at that time. The writing is snappy and humorous and makes for two compelling characters, who from then on propel the movie forwards. When the dialogue is not sharp and witty, as seen in Death Proof, the elongated scenes come off as tedious and act as an unfortunate introduction to our insipid protagonists.
The film centres on Stuntman Mike, as portrayed by Kurt Russell after a succession of actors turned the role down, a psychotic stunt driver who gets his kicks stalking, intimidating and violently murdering groups of young women with his “death-proof” car. In a similar way as in From Dusk Till Dawn, Tarantino manipulates the conventions of genre, riffing on the slasher narrative whilst incorporating aspects of 1970s car chase movies such as Vanishing Point, which is explicitly referenced. Throughout, the film is keen to hark back to exploitation cinema of old in everything from its 70s style titles to its scratchy film, rough jump-cuts and skipping dialogue. Whilst watching Death Proof, it becomes clear that Tarantino came up with the idea of paying homage in this way, and proceeded with little thought to the thrown-together narrative which would allow him to do so. Attempts of nostalgia eventually become tiresome as the film severely pales in comparison to the movies it endeavours to pay tribute to.
If it has any redeeming features it is that its action sequences are thrillingly well-executed and its vicious use of violence, particularly against the female leads, makes for a gruelling watch at times. It also has to be said that the film possesses an impressive cast on paper, who have every right to feel cheated for being presented with the dullest and most irritating Tarantino characters yet. Sydney Tamiia Poitier auditioned for the role of Vernita Green in Kill Bill, and for my money, she would have made a fine Copperhead. Kurt Russell is always an imposing screen presence and yet is unable to bring the same menace that I believe John Travolta or Mickey Rourke would have brought had they accepted the role.
Death Proof fails to entertain and lacks the usual speedy pace of a Tarantino product. The director himself recently admitted that it was his worst picture, yet the film is thankfully the only blip in his impressive back catalogue. At the time, the failure of the film prompted many critics to proclaim that Tarantino had “run out of ideas.” His next film was to be the war epic Inglourious Basterds, a triumphant return to form that cemented the director’s name amongst the all-time greats.
The jaw-dropping climactic chase sequence, which sees revered stuntwoman Zoe Bell hanging from the hood of a car as it is continuously rammed by Russell’s death-proofed vehicle, only for the girls to chase him back. This is truly one for the books.
- The original name for this film, which pops up for about a frame, is “Quentin Tarantino’s Thunder Bolt.”
- Zoe Bell does all her own stunts (she was the stunt double for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill series).
- The jukebox (named AMi, pronounced “Amy”), is Tarantino’s own. It was trucked to Austin to be used in the film in its very own rig. The list of songs on it was also hand-written by Tarantino.
- When Kim, Zoe and Abby are in the Challenger, ready to go on their “test drive,” they pull up by Lee and Kim says, “Hey good-looking, we’ll be back to pick YOU up later!” This was a line in a commercial for a cheesy Ronco product, Mr. Microphone, in the 70s. It was used again in a 1990’s episode of The Simpsons.
- At the beginning, Vanessa Ferlito’s character is drinking from a soda cup. The restaurant on the cup is the same Mexican restaurant (Acuna Boys) that is advertised during the transition between Planet Terror and Death Proof in the original Grindhouse. The Acuna boys are also mentioned in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, said to be a gang made up of the children of “Esteban Vihaio,” a pimp’s whore’s children.
- All of the posters for the film are inaccurate. The car is depicted without its rubber duck hood ornament.
- Stuntman Mike’s two “death proof” cars are a 1970 Chevy Nova and a 1969 Dodge Charger.
- Kurt Russell can be seen in the background, eating through the diner scene.