Thursday, March 28, 2019

Half of Grindhouse Is Utterly Sublime, But The Other Half, Well, Is One-Note Even By B-Movie Homage Standards

Grindhouse is a project only a filmmaker with as much clout as Quentin Tarantino could get off the ground. A 191-minute-long homage to old B-movie double features consisting of two feature-length films, one directed by Robert Rodriguez and the other helmed by Tarantino, it's a project that sounds like a perfect fit for the midnight movie festival circuit but something that would have limited appeal as a conventional wide release project. The Weinstein Company decided to make a big go at bringing Grindhouse to general audiences and pushed it out into 2,629 locations in April 2007 only for it to end up grossing only $26 million domestically, the worst box office performance ever for a movie Tarantino directed outside of his inaugural feature Reservoir Dogs, which never played in more than 61 locations.

Clearly, Grindhouse was a box office bust, but how does it play as a whole film now, twelve years after its release? Pretty well overall even if almost all of the fun is reserved for the second half of the double feature. The first film we get is Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, it's the story of a small Texas town being ravaged by a unique version of zombies. A horde of townsfolk, led by the mysterious El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), band together to survive the sudden onslaught of undead adversaries. Josh Brolin and Bruce Willis also show up in key supporting roles.

Planet Terror is a slimy motion picture that comes off as one-joke run if not into the ground then just barely above the dirt. While not bad, there's also not much to it beyond some well-done effects used for particularly gory moments or death scenes as well as a bunch of lines of dialogue meant to lampoon cheesy B-movie dialogue. You see five minutes of Planet Terror, you've basically seen it all. Despite being a movie featuring Rose McGowan with a gun for a leg firing away at evil zombies, Planet Terror could actually stand to be a touch weirder, particularly since its plot about a small-Southern town getting ravaged by the undead can't help but recall the far nastier, far more bizarre and far more fun movie Slither released a year prior to Grindhouse.

Both the cast and the characters seem to be part of the problem. In terms of the cast, Freddy Rodriguez, for instance, can growl his way through schlocky tough-guy dialogue decently but he doesn't have much on-screen personality to speak of. Meanwhile, the characters have a tendency to be as disposable as the performance given by Rodriguez, particularly any non-undead foes. This, unfortunately, includes a villain role for Bruce Willis, a character so sparsely seen that he never gets a chance to make much of an impression and the other non-undead foes are pretty forgettable. Other performances, like Rose McGowan's lead performance or a charming turn by Jeff Fahey as the creator of especially delicious BBQ, fit the bill for what kind of entertaining acting one should get in a B-movie homage while Rodriguez does create some moments of fun that could only happen in a homage to gross-out fare from the '80s, particularly a hysterical moment involving "lost footage".

Planet Terror is mostly tolerable, but it's not much more than that. Thankfully, Grindhouse has a real ace up its sleeve in the form of Death Proof, an unmistakably Quentin Tarantino movie about a stunt driver, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who has a proclivity for tracking down women and using his impenetrable vehicle to slaughter these women. His newest potential victims are long-time friends Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Zoe Bell (played by herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). Whereas Planet Terror was all B-movie madness all the time, Death Proof is a classic Tarantino slow burn in the mold of Jackie Brown or The Hateful Eight, where dialogue makes up much of the runtime and violence emerges only in rare instances.

But when violence does transpire in Grindhouse, the viciousness of Mike's actions gets felt with all the force of a shovel to the head. In addition to the more sparse approach to the violence, these instances of violence also get aided in their effectiveness by how much time is spent just watching the women Mike targets engaging in conversation with one another, we actually get to know them and understand who they are before they're put in danger by way of Mike's psychopathic behavior. The natural chemistry between Rosario Dawson and the three women playing her friends (which also include Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee Montgomery) is so endearing that one could watch them shoot the breeze all day.

Though Death Proof dedicates much of its runtime to those kinds of easygoing conversations, it primarily ditches dialogue for a third-act car chase that's stunningly realized. The consequences of Mike's prior rampages loom over Abernathy, Zoe and Kim as they try to evade this relentless murderous stuntman but it isn't long before Tarantino turns the tables and has the trio chase after Mike in a vengeance-fueled car chase sequence that had me giddy. I was practically cheering on these three characters as they engaged in an oh so cathartic pursuit of this madman, and as if this chase scene wasn't already fun enough to watch, it ends on a note of intentionally abrupt violence that homages the iconic ending of Blood Debts and provides maybe the best conclusion to any Quentin Tarantino movie. 

The character of Stuntman Mike is portrayed in an appropriately eerie fashion by Kurt Russell in a performance that sees Russell switching on a dime from a seemingly normal dude at a bar to a sadistic driver in an impressively effortless fashion. He makes for a terrifying villain and it's especially neat how Russell's imposing performance makes the ending of Death Proof all the more satisfying to watch since the viewer gets to see an imposing seemingly unstoppable serial killer get a taste of his own medicine. Such a sequence wouldn't feel like such a subversion of expectations if Russell didn't work so well as menacing presence beforehand while Dawson, Bell and Thoms also are exquisite in their portrayals of their characters going from potential murder victims to vengeful drivers. 

Basically, Death Proof is a whole lot of fun, it's a movie that starts out as a terse thriller stuffed with palpable tension and engaging dialogue exchanges before it transitions into something subversive and endlessly cathartic in its third act. It's an absolute blast to watch and the same can be said for the assortment of fake movie trailers that accompany the two movies in Grindhouse. The trailers here are wonderful in just how well they capture certain eras of filmmaking and genres but they're also just highly entertaining in their own right. What rational person wouldn't wanna see Werewolf Women of the SS after see the fake trailer for it that precedes Death Proof? If you can make it through the overly repetitive Planet Terror, Grindhouse really fulfills its potential as a homage to B-movies of yesteryear and as just a quality movie in its own right.

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