Dirs: Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino. US. 2007. 192mins.
Intended as an enthusiastically grimy, collagist tribute piece to low-budget, ultra-violent and offbeat exploitation flicks of yore, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse delivers an uneven mixture of patchwork, sugar-rush thrills.
Consisting of two discrete features strung together by a series of fake trailers shot by Edgar Wright, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, it benefits mostly from the recombinant pop of Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a strikingly well designed and tackily atmospheric zombie action flick, before the twin-bill's finale, Tarantino's muddled Death Proof, fumbles its way through a pointless set-up to an undeniably invigorating car chase climax.
Grindhouse will try to position itself as hipster genre entry when it opens in the US later this week, and no doubt achieve solid opening returns given the high profiles of its makers. But how far this charm offensive of cool lasts, and the degree to which it successfully spreads outside of the chief demographic target, depends on word-of-mouth amongst those for whom referential lionisation for lionisation's sake means very little.
A besting of Rodriguez's Sin City US box office, which pulled in just under $75m and for which Tarantino directed a segment, seems unlikely, not only because of Grindhouse's three-hour-plus running time, but also because the film lacks the groundbreaking sumptuousness and hook of that aforementioned movie's starkly rendered visual palette.
Foreign reception for the project - including a separate release of the films in most markets -should be quite warm, given the embrace of Sin City and Tarantino's Kill Bill pictures, all of which grossed more abroad than Stateside, especially in Tarantino-friendly territories such as the UK.
Ancillary value will also remain quite high, given not only the novelty of the joint presentation, but Rodriguez and Tarantino's status as standard bearers of the modern-day nonconformist auteurs.
In Planet Terror, an Austin hospital is inundated with townspeople ravaged by oozing sores. Soon their symptoms take a turn for the worse, and a full-fledged zombie attack is underway.
Enigmatic junk-trucker Wray (Rodriguez), meanwhile, reconnects with his former significant other, go-go dancer Cherry (McGowan), who, in the course of the evening, loses one of her legs in an attack.
Together with a wary Sheriff Hague (Biehn), Wray and Cherry lead a motley crew of survivors into the night, trying to stay ahead of the marauding hordes. Captured by the military, they eventually learn of a dark conspiracy behind the infection, and work to try to ensure its suppression.
Also set in Austin, and sprinkling in cameos from a few of the Planet Terror characters, Death Proof presents two separate female ensembles of dissimilar tone, only mildly linked by Kurt Russell's intriguing Stuntman Mike character, who disappears for an ungainly stretch in the middle.
The first segment centres around local DJ Jungle Julia (Poitier) and her gal pals Shanna and Arlene (Ladd and Ferlito), who, at a neon-infused dive watering hole, catch the attention of Mike, a rumpled relic of the all-or-nothing days of practical effects work and chase sequences.
From here we shift to a quartet of women on break from various film set gigs (Zoe Bell, Dawson, Thoms and Winstead). When this group test drives a car on a deserted back country road, an amped-up, Duel-type showdown ensues.
As a film-maker, Rodriguez has always been chiefly a visualist, a purveyor of hyper-stylised genre pictures. In Planet Terror, though, he constructs a pop diorama of singular vision, folding in plenty of scuzzy, low-rent touches (grain and film scratches, sound pops) and locating the dark humor of these affectations, and the fashion in which they intersect with and affect the narrative.
The story itself owes a lot to Dawn Of The Dead, but Rodriguez sketches his most effectively sympathetic characters in years, and all of the film's period detail is appropriate, right down to the more diluted, Karo syrup blood and globs of yellow pus.
With his penchant for decorative language, Tarantino has always had more of a preference for garnish over the main course, and this is usually aided by a diversity of colourful characters (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) or orgiastic style (Kill Bill).
Death Proof , though, is two or three half-baked ideas tossed together - part dawdling psycho killer tale, part feminist revenge picture - with no codifying elixir; ultimately, enthusiastic air-quote homage largely trumps cohesion.
It's obvious that a big part of the inspiration was to work with Bell, Uma Thurman's stunt double in the Kill Bill series, as well as more generally celebrate practical stuntwork, and those that perform it.
The problem is that there are no true characters of deep consequence here, and certainly nothing to warrant the repetition of so much inane dialogue, a lot of it centred around girls talking in circuitous fashion about their sex lives or scoring marijuana. These chatty passages are deadly dull - a first for a Tarantino picture.
On the performance front, Death Proof serves mainly as an on-camera introduction to Bell, a sunny presence, and an amusing showcase of wildly varying tonalities for a game, veteran Russell.
Jeff Dashnaw serves as in the capacity of stunt coordinator on both films, but it's Death Proof's blacktop thrills - easily on par with Ronin, The French Connection and the original Gone In 60 Seconds - that give that film its cathartic redemption. With Bell strapped to the hood of a 1970s Dodge Challenger (a much-discussed homage to Vanishing Point), she's the human ping-pong ball in a vicariously thrilling game of automotive chicken.
Planet Terror , meanwhile, provides a more rooted backdrop for its characters, and Rodriguez and McGowan each deliver. Bringing a charged electricity to their roles as hung-up ex-lovers, they each, under Rodriguez's direction, strike the right chords of noirish imperturbability that anchor the movie.
Jack-of-all-trades Rodrigue provides the film with some spot-on musical compositions. Heavy on the affected synth that was a staple of cheap horror genre pics of the 1980s, it alternates in resonant fashion between the purposefully tremulous and the swaggering.
The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company
Sydney Tamiia Poitier
Mary Elizabeth Winstead