“Death Proof”, the second “feature” of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s fantastic yet commercially unsuccessful “Grindhouse” experiment, has been given something of a second life as a standalone feature. Retooled and re-edited, Tarantino’s fusion of 70’s car-crash movies and 80’s slasher flicks has somehow emerged as a “respectable”, critically lauded film.
Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a scarred and scary relic of a man who sports an Icy Hot racing jacket and a hairstyle at least three decades out of date. Stuntman Mike is a killer, plain and simple, but he doesn’t use guns or knives to take down his prey; no, Mike’s weapon of choice is a jet-black muscle car retrofitted with welded frames, industrial seat belts, and a roll cage. This baby is “death proof”.
The film opens in Austin, Texas, with Mike stalking three young hotties; the transplanted New Yorker, Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito); the party-hearty Shanna (Jordan Ladd); and the sexy disc jockey, Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier). After much talk, tease, and a little terror at a local watering hole, Mike pursues the girls as they head to Shanna’s dad’s lake house, bumping off the unlucky hitch, Pam (Rose McGowan), en route. After a devastating (and extremely well-done) crash that claims the lives of everyone save Mike, the authorities have no choice but to let killer go as there’s no evidence that the crash was anything more than an accident.
Months later, we meet Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Toms), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who are in Tennessee shooting a film. Kim’s fellow stuntwoman, Zoë (Zoë Bell), also in town for a quick visit, has found a Dodge Charger for sale in the area that is the exact make, model, and color of the vehicle used in the cult-classic “Vanishing Point”, and persuades Kim and the other girls to make a pit-stop at the seller’s home so that she can test drive the car (amongst other things). Meanwhile, Stuntman Mike is in town, as well, and has his eye on Abernathy. Will this group of girls prove to be as easy as his last victims, or has Mike finally met his match?
Like all of Tarantino’s films, the real star of Death Proof is its extremely talky script, which, in and of itself, is the polar opposite of the films he and his cohort set out to pay homage to in the first place. This is one of the main reasons many fans of Grindhouse I’ve spoken to preferred Rodriguez’s installment, as it was much more faithful to that particular genre. What was even more confusing, though, was Tarantino’s abrupt departure of the “scratches and skips” effects used to make the films look as old and tattered as their seventies counterparts (despite their modern settings). In Death Proof, the effect is used for the entire first half of the film, and then, following a brief black and white sequence, is inexplicably dropped for the last half. I’m sure the director had his reasons, just as I’m sure that some viewers won’t even notice the difference, but it does detract from the “experience” the filmmakers had set out to create.
Perhaps this is why I enjoyed Death Proof more as a standalone film rather than second part of the double feature it was intended to be a part of, as it no longer felt like an all-too-polished entry in to what was otherwise a meticulously crafted recreation of the grimy 70’s theater experience. It just didn’t seem as though Tarantino was up to the task of “slumming it”, and, instead, delivered an exceptionally well-written film that was, frankly, too good to be a grindhouse movie in the first place.
This unrated and extended edition features much more chatter than the Grindhouse version of the film, so folks who didn’t like that aspect of Death Proof in its original incarnation will like it even less now. However, fans of Tarantino’s whipsmart dialogue will rejoice at the inclusion of even more monologues, soliloquies, and diatribes, as well as a longer version of the film’s stunt-filled climax. The DVD offers up two discs worth of extra grooviness, including featurettes about stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoë Bell, a look at the guys and girls of Death Proof, and much more. While this version of the film lacks any of the cool trailers and gimmickry of the theatrical double-feature, that version will undoubtedly hit DVD in the near future, and, besides, this is the standalone version of Tarantino’s film – the same version that wowed the folks at Cannes – so the lack of Grindhouse features shouldn’t come as a surprise.
While this “complete” version of Death Proof will never be the sort of pop-culture touchstone as, say, Pulp Fiction, it is every bit as much of a Tarantino film as any of his other offerings, brimming with the director’s love of cinema, chock-full of everything that makes his movies so endearing to his fellow film-geeks, and, most importantly, much more effective in this presentation as opposed to its original, truncated Grindhouse format.