Director: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Freddy Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson
As a gleeful homage to the “grindhouse” cinema days in which theaters ran a non-stop mixed bag of exploitation films, “Grindhouse“ is a strong success — especially that “mixed bag” part. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, whose every film has been infused with a childhood love of schlock, are the ultimate geeks, putting their obsessions joyfully on screen, to a degree that is often entertaining but sometimes as tiresome as any otaku rattling on about the fine nuances of his personal obsession.
As a cinematic experience, it is alternately exhilarating, excruciating and tedious — which is probably an accurate representation of grindhouse cinema. Still, one ends up wishing the auteurs would’ve curbed their enthusiasm a little and taken about an hour out of their three-hour thrillfest.
Tarantino and Rodriguez have, of course, mined this territory together before. Tarantino appeared in and did the screenplay for Rodriguez’ 1996 “From Dusk Till Dawn.” That film started out as a Tarantino-esque crime caper that, halfway through, became a vampire orgy not unlike the undead madness of “Planet Terror.” Here the duo try to more obsessively recreate the grindhouse vibe, and while the double feature will thrill hardcore and casual fans of either the directors or the exploitation genres, it’s also hard to miss the fact that a little less probably would’ve been more.
Most interesting is the approach each director takes to his material. Rodriguez is most successful because he merrily sets out to create the crappiest monster movie ever, an utterly incoherent collection of incredibly cheap thrills that, as a satire of truly bad films past, had a recent preview audience howling with delight. Rodriguez’ special effects and ability to deliver absolutely grotesque images outshines the spoofery, hitting on two levels — his movie makes you squirm and flinch at the same time you’re laughing at how low he’ll stoop. I mean, he cuts off the leg of a half-naked stripper and sticks a machine gun on the stump so she can shoot zombies from the back of a motorcycle. Your reaction to that sentence should pretty well determine whether you want to see this movie.
Tarantino, on the other hand, makes a Quentin Tarantino movie and simply uses the “grindhouse” schtick to excuse a lack of believable story or character behind his car-chase tribute to the (endlessly name-checked) exploitation flick “Vanishing Point.” Whereas the “Kill Bill” double bill actually tried to weld intriguing characters and a near-coherent — if overheated — revenge story to his elevation of martial-arts cinema, Tarantino’s half of “Grindhouse” is simply a crappy, tedious movie full of Tarantino’s usual one-rhythm dialogue wrapped around the best-shot, most harrowing car chase sequence I have ever seen.
First up, after a pair of hilarious “coming attractions,” is Rodriguez’ puss-splattered zombie flick, “Planet Terror.” At an hour and a half, the film is at least half an hour too long (and that’s with the schtick, repeated in Tarantino’s, of an entire reel having gone “missing”). Rodriguez throws in a stripper, a dire and nonsensical military operation, an evil doctor, an abusive marriage, a mysterious hero with a (never explained) dark past, and an endless supply of festering zombies. The music (by Rodriguez) is as lurid and horrible as the film, and every schlocky thrill is both offensive and delightful. Fans of this kind of cinema will love how far over the top Rodriguez is willing to go (parked cars blow up left and right without cause, just ’cause it’s an action scene), and probably won’t mind that their beloved genre is pretty much being mocked by a fellow aficionado. Those who don’t like gory movies in which dismembered limbs are absolutely the least queasy moments probably will have a hard time enjoying this sucker.
After Rodriguez leaves you about as brain-melted as the bug-eyed Malcom MacDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” a couple more “previews” come along before Tarantino’s film, “Death Proof,” finally starts. While Rodriguez’ movie clearly made every bad move in story, dialogue and effect with a wink to the audience, Tarantino’s flick is flawed in ways one suspects the director doesn’t realize. He spends half the movie on his painfully stylized dialogue with four women whose only job is to die spectacularly as a setup to the movie’s real point, which is the next quartet of women to face psycho-killer Kurt Russell’s stunt-car of doom.
Further, Tarantino’s cast, because of (and arguably despite) his endless stretches of deliberately pointless dialogue, becomes more real than the plot-mannequins of “Planet Terror.” Thus, when the women act unrealistically to get the plot where it needs to go, it’s jarring in a way that the complete insanity of the zombie flick is not. Tarantino creates an atmosphere in which we expect more, frankly, so it’s disappointing when we don’t get it. The trio of actresses trapped in the car chase — Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and stuntwoman Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s double in “Kill Bill”) — are particularly engaging. Hearing Thoms deliver, with urban black-chick swagger, dialogue that still sounds exactly like the one voice in Quentin Tarantino’s head is kinda funny, but she makes it work. By now we all know Tarantino’s ticks, and his heightened and peculiar sense of reality is surely one of them.
That said, the overlong and offkey setup is worth it for the car chase. Whereas grindhouse cinema was about cheaply done thrills, the stuntwork by Bell, who plays herself in the film, is just stunning. After all the fake, giggle-inducing grossout terrors of “Planet Terror,” Tarantino puts a theoretically jaded and bored audience on the edge of its seats. It’s as thrilling, though not as elaborate, as the Parkour chase at the beginning of “Casino Royale.”
The sheer A-list quality of that sequence, though, underscores the problem with tone in Tarantino’s bit. While Rodriguez’ segment is a nonstop rush of “scratched-up” and faded film, bad repair splices and the like, Tarantino plays that game at the beginning of “Death Proof” and then quickly (and wisely) abandons it because it doesn’t fit his character stuff and would detract from the breathless car stunts in the climax. One sort of wishes that, just as he was able to make an A-quality feature for his B-movie martial arts obsessions with “Kill Bill,” he’d wrapped a better movie around the amazing car chase.
But a really unpredictable bag of highs and lows is part of the experience the directors are trying to create, so you take your tedium and your high-quality thrills with your cheap exploitation and you hope your bladder holds out for three straight hours.