Dir/scr: Quentin Tarantino. USA 2007. 115 mins.
Quentin Tarantino should go back to making films that matter. If the shorter, Grindhouse version of Death Proof, his hybrid slasher meets car chase homage to early 1970s B-movies, hinted that everyone's favourite cult director was running out of creative gas, the full-length Cannes edit leaves no shadow of a doubt.
This 'director's cut' may run 27 minutes longer than the US-released version, but the extra footage just makes this stylised genre exercise seem even more pointless. The main problem with Death Proof is not the authenticity of cine-geek Tarantino's heartfelt and occasionally quite funny tribute to movies like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry or Vanishing Point, but his failure to go beyond winks and references to craft a film that works, even on a genre-based, non-festival, real-audience level. Any car-chase film in which the final, climactic pursuit gets boring around three minutes in clearly has some knots to iron out.
Of course, this will mean little to Tarantino's core fanbase, which will lap the film up in cinemas and on DVD. But with the two features on the US Grindhouse double-bill (the other being Robert Rodriguez' zombie-flick Planet Terror) now likely to be released as two stand-alone titles in most overseas territories, distributors will be looking beyond the hardcore faithful to recoup their outlay.
And its here that Death Proof runs the risk of coming off the road: in attempting to mix sassy-chick-flick, exploitative slasher movie and crunching-metal stuntcar feature, it risks fully pleasing nobody. Just as well it has a tasty soundtrack.
Death Proof is really two films that mirror each other - except in the first the bad guy wins, and in the second he loses. The bad guy is Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a grizzly, scarred, gravel-voiced loner who drives a mean black car. When he sees a group of badass girlfriends (played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito) out on the prowl in downtown Austin, Mike follows them, all the way to a bar that's all nostalgic neon with a jukebox loaded with Staxx funk-soul classics on real vinyl. Tarantino himself plays Warren, the bar owner; another cameo as a dorky guy on the make is taken by Eli Roth, director of Hostel. Here the girls jive-talk, flirt and end up smoking weed on the porch while Mike bides his time - meaning that we have to wait the best part of an hour for the death-crazed hotrod killer finale.
In part two - which unspools 14 months later in Lebanon, Tennessee - another group of four girlfriends has stopped outside a convenience store. Abernathy the make-up girl (Rosario Dawson), Lee the naive actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and two stuntgirls, played by Tracie Thoms and real-life New Zealand stuntgirl Zoe Bell - who was Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill - are in town on a movie shoot (cue a series of cinema in-jokes - from sideswipes at Angelina Jolie to the copy of Film Comment in the gas station magazine rack).
Also parked in the forecourt in his good-as-new death machine, Stuntman Mike marks this gaggle out as his next victims. But beneath that rough exterior, Tarantino is a politically-correct modern man, and in this girlpower reprise on the slasher genre, things don't go exactly as the evil car-killer would like.
Plenty of fun is had in the attempt to make Death Proof look like a real early 1970s B-movie: scratches, abrupt cuts, inept splices and lines running down the film surface contribute with garish lighting and warped theme-tune playback to give a sense of weathered authenticity. Costumes and production design are also spot-on.
But two things rub against this effect. Tarantino here acts for the first time as DoP on one of his films, and while some of the chase scenes and exterior-interior rig-mounted car shots do mimic the style of the grindhouse genre flick, plenty of others are far more contemporary in style; there's even a short reprise of the famous circling shot from the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.
Even more jarring is the interminable dialogue these two sets of gurlzz indulge in during the long, long run-up to the dual action explosions. If you thought from the posters that Death Proof was mostly tyre-smoking racer action, think again. It's mostly girl-talk - though these girls talk about sex and cars in a suspiciously male-oriented way. Not only are these huge swathes of dialogue mostly flat and inert in terms of both story and character, but with the exception of a few inspired riffs, they fail to reach the comic-ironic peaks we know (mostly from Pulp Fiction) that the director is capable of.
Kurt Russell inhabits his role with relish, and his character is the only really interesting one in the film - he plays Stuntman Mike as an articulate, weary lone wolf, who in the final reel exhibits a comic vulnerability and lack of courage under fire. Stuntwoman Zoe Bell seizes her hour under the arclights with great gusto, and there are some nice turns from some of her professional actress colleagues - notably Vanessa Ferlito as a sassy but grounded good-time girl in part one.
But fruity character parts don't add up to a great film. Dramatically limp, even as a genre piece, Death Proof provokes a rate of distracted watch-glancing never before experienced in a Tarantino movie.
The Weinstein Company
Sydney Tamiia Poitier
Mary Elizabeth Winstead