Monday, January 5, 2009
For whatever reason, I never caught "Grindhouse" in theaters. Perhaps it's my aversion to horror (read: childlike whimpering fear), or maybe just the fact that it bombed so quickly, but even when it hit a dollar theater my buddies couldn't convince me to go to a midnight showing (I am not sitting through a three hour movie starting at midnight). At any rate, when the individual DVDs came out I picked them up and was stunned: Rodriguez and Tarantino made a completely hilarious romp through the films of their childhood, ones I had never even heard of. Yet it didn't matter; their enthusiasm for the glorified detritus of the 70s was infectious.
Unfortunately, in their individual director's cuts, both films were noticeably bloated, crammed with so many in-jokes that only they would get that it got bogged down in nerdiness. They went so far out of their way to tribute the look, feel, and general (lack of) quality that, after a viewing or two, it became a chore to watch them. But now Netflix is offering the theatrical cut of "Grindhouse" in its "Instant Watch" queue, so I finally got a chance to see what I really missed. Turns out, I missed one of the best movies of 2007 and one of the single most fun movies ever made.
Of course, it opens with Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," inarguably the more visceral and fun of the two. The plot seems simple (some sort of gas turns people into zombie-like things), but he adds layers of asinine backstory to make it seem deeper, just like a crap Grindhouse film. The hero is the mysterious Wray, and no one respects him until they learn he's "El Wray," at which point he's treated like a god. Dakota is leaving her husband for a woman. Cherry and Wray have a history. The hilarious reveal about Muldoon's contribution to the War on Terror.
These little threads make the movie more interesting, but really it just comes down to shooting zombies. Shooting zombies with pistols, shooting zombies with shotguns, shooting zombies with assault rifle legs; if it shuffles, it's getting shot. And really, that's what the movie's good for; it offers not even an ounce of depth, but then why would it? You get some funny lines and a nonstop series of explosions. The theatrical cut of "Planet Terror" doesn't change too wildly; there's a bit less gore and a few scenes are shorter. "Death Proof," on the other hand is a revelation.
When I compared the two separate films I found "Death Proof" to be the better entry because there was at least some story, but the version I saw was so endlessly drawn out on the uninteresting conversations of the first half that I can barely watch it after two viewings. But here, Tarantino reins it in; the conversations between the vapid, first set of girls are still boring and oddly devoid of wit, but he cuts out a great deal of their incessant prattling. Now I only had to wait 25-30 minutes for something interesting to happen rather than nearly an hour.
Many cite "Planet Terror" as the superior film, but in this trimmed version, "Death Proof" reigns triumphant. Apart from the fact that this shortened version is actually funny, DP wins (if I may be so simple) solely on the basis of Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike. One of the oddest, darkly funniest, and genuinely intimidating villains I've seen, Stuntman Mike makes not just DP but "Grindhouse."
Turns out Mike's been spying on these ladies all night and, after quickly crushing his hapless passenger's skull against the dash with a well-applied brake, he sets off into the night to more or less slash them with his car. A borderline stupid concept, Tarantino makes it work, mainly thanks to Russell's acting. When Mike first speaks he seems like such an amicable fellow: he doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs, and offers a ride home (though admittedly he's offering the ride to a drunk, hot chick so maybe that's not so noble).
But Russell turns on a dime when he actually converses with the ladies he's been stalking all night. When they interrupt him or insult him, Russell's face changes ever so slightly, and suddenly a bottomless well of contempt springs from his eyes. You can tell here that he's going to do something bad.
Of course, the movie really picks up in the wake of the first set of girls. The most explanation we get for why this happened is that maybe Mike is a pervert who gets off on killing with his car, but there's no way to prove he did anything, so once he heals from his cuts and bruises he's free to go. When flash-forward to a new set of ladies, a group working on some movie. There's two stuntwomen, a makeup lady, and an actress, all out for a day off chatting over lunch and oh yeah test driving the car from "Vanishing Point."
The ending 20-minute car chash is just about the best thing Tarantino has ever filmed. Unlike seemingly every other car chase these days, he shows us what's going on. The man famed for his quick-cutting actually bothers to follow these cars. It's a ballet of metal and rubber, starting horrifying and thrilling, then turning the tables on Mike in hilarious and no less exhilarting fashion.
Complete with the fake trailers, "Grindhouse" is a pure romp, one that greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. Separate, the two films are certainly fun, but together the flaws of both cancel each other out; if you didn't get the chance to watch this in theaters, go to Netflix now, even if you aren't a member; it's worth the fee.