Death Proof: Extended and Unrated Review
As the fifth film by Quentin Tarantino, Death Proof was so burdened by the weight of expectation that when it turned out to be just what it claimed to be – a ‘Grindhouse’ exploitation romp with more than a few Tarantino trademarks – many viewers were baffled or let down. Why is the film full of scratches and jumps, some cried. Others complained that it was all talk and little action – presumably those who had never seen a Tarantino film before. Thankfully, those of us who love Tarantino for what he is – a film geek with a special facility for language and a sharp eye for a clever camera move – can enjoy Death Proof as a wildly entertaining, totally inconsequential bit of fun.
It’s only fair to emphasise the inconsequentiality of proceedings, however. The film was, as surely everyone knows, originally made as the second half of a ‘Grindhouse’ double feature made with Robert Rodriguez. The intention was to celebrate the old days of ultra-sleazy movie houses where bad prints of deathless B-movies were endlessly recycled. The two films – Rodriguez’s Planet Terror gets its own DVD release in October – were accompanied by fake trailers made by Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright and presented with bits of old presentation material, some of which is familiar from the Kill Bill films. For a variety of reasons, which change depending on one’s individual point of view, the double-bill flopped in America and may never been seen in that form again. So, we’re getting extended versions of both movies and, out of context, the lack of ambition and obvious technical flaws seem to have startled some fans of both directors. Admittedly, it doesn’t help that Tarantino seems to junk the idea of including deliberate technical guffs about halfway through the film. But fans of the likes of Switchblade Sisters, Coffy, Gone In 60 Seconds and The Big Bird Cage should find much to enjoy here.
The movie is basically divided into two parts but it would spoil things to reveal exactly how this is done. A group of ‘Bad Ass Babes’ get together to smoke weed, drink beer and chat about sex, not realising that they are being stalked by a bizarre middle-aged stranger called ‘Stuntman Mike’ (Kurt Russell). When he approaches them, he seems charming enough and, due to a complicated bet made by one of the girls, he even received a complimentary lap-dance. But it’s another kind of dancing he has in mind, one that involves cars bashing into each other and corpses flying through the air…
Just using the word ‘Grindhouse’ suggests sleaze but Death Proof is surprisingly light on scuzziness. There’s an awful lot of foul language bandied about, mostly by the ladies, and some very tight-fitting outfits that are lovingly caressed by the camera lens. But the aforementioned lap-dance, while a memorable set piece, is more funny than sexy, and performed with such brio by Vanessa Ferlito that it would take a very po-faced viewer to be offended. Throughout the film, the lack of nudity is surprising and one of the ways in which it doesn’t entirely stick to the principles of its roots – you may recall that however tough the girls were in the 1970s, they still had to get ‘em out for the camera. That leaves the violence, which is sparing though gratifyingly brutal when it comes – there’s a head-on car crash scene that will leave squeamish viewers hiding under their seats.
What we do get a lot of is girl talk, orchestrated by Tarantino the scriptwriter at his most self-indulgent. How much you like this will depend on your tolerance for women talking endlessly about sex – although in my experience, a typical group of middle-aged women from Yorkshire talk about it just as much as any of these girls do. The fresh, funny performances help a lot, not only from Rosario Dawson and Rose McGowan, who are always good value, but from (to me) less familiar faces like Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier and Tracey Thoms. There’s some wonderful idle chat about definitions of going all the way and the foibles of men but the bits I liked best were the left-field references to Robert Frost and a delightful animadversion about Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Tarantino isn’t lazy during these scenes either. There’s an absolutely gob-smacking 7 minute take, circling a table as the girls are talking, which is way beyond anything achieved by the original ‘Grindhouse’ directors.
But what really makes the film tick is the character of Stuntman Mike, played with casual brilliance by Kurt Russell. He gets all the best lines and Russell devours with relish the chance to play a complete psychopath. Russell has always been a fun actor but he exceeds himself here with tongue-twisting lines like “Because it was a fifty fifty shot on whether you'd be going left or right. You see we're both going left. You could have just as easily been going left, too. And if that was the case... It would have been a while before you started getting scared. But since you're going the other way, I'm afraid you're gonna have to start getting scared... immediately!” What makes Russell so good in the role is that his charm is as convincing as his darker side and he can make the switch in the twinkling of an eye. He is becoming one of the most entertaining actors around with an iconic presence that is set fair to rank him alongside Kris Kristofferson and Sam Elliott as one of the coolest actors in the universe – he’s already developing a physical resemblance to the former. Incidentally, in the light of some half-baked feminist criticism of the film, it’s well worth noting that Stuntman Mike is the character that receives the most protracted punishment – and at the hand of a group of intimidatingly tough women.
Death Proof is certainly flawed. Sometimes it’s just plain pretentious – a lengthy sequence is shot in black and white for no good reason – and the casting of Zoe Bell – an awesomely talented stuntwoman – in a dramatic role is a bit of a mistake since she clearly can’t deliver a line of dialogue convincingly, let alone act. But I found it consistently entertaining, despite a slightly peculiar structure, and the final twenty minutes of action is delivered with swift, smooth assurance by Tarantino and his long-time collaborator, editor Sally Menke. It should also go without saying that the soundtrack – containing snippets from Jack Nitzsche, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and Pino Donnagio – is to die for.
This extended version of Death Proof runs 113 minutes compared to the 90 minutes of the original. I haven’t seen the double-bill version so I can’t comment on the changes. Watching this version, however, I thought it flowed pretty well provided one accepts the change of track halfway through.
The film is presented in its original Scope ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. The first half is deliberately full of scratches, jumps and pops but these slow up and eventually vanish by the second hour. Otherwise, the image is pristine with strong, true colours and plenty of detail throughout. My favourite bit of the transfer was the gorgeously rich monochrome sequence. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is also excellent - once the deliberate flaws have been dropped - with plenty of surround activity during the car chase and some memorable bass during the major crash scene. Dialogue is generally directional and, where appropriate, the music sounds wonderful as it dominates the track. Perhaps the track is too good since it doesn't quite seem right for the authentic Grindhouse experience.
Unfortunately, despite the strength of the transfer, the rest of the package is disappointing. The first disc contains the film along with an option which allows the viewer to listen to three extended music tracks. There are also a number of trailers, including the gloriously demented one for Planet Terror, and an international poster gallery. So far so good but the second disc is basically filler. There are a number of documentaries but the only one of any great interest is the one on the stunt drivers who contributed to the film. The features on the girls and guys of the film are blargh, consisting of what amounts to mutual masturbation between Tarantino and the actors. There's a featurette about Zoe Bell which is so superficial that it's no more than a trailer for the film Double Dare - confusingly so since a real trailer for that very worthwhile documentary is also included. Finally, we get a much too brief tribute to Kurt Russell's iconic status and a baffling bit during which the cast and crew bugger about for the alleged delight of the editor.