Quentin Tarantino is not the unstoppable force we once thought he was.
There was a time when he could do no wrong - his new movies were eagerly anticipated like no others, his name attached to a project was a guaranteed seal of quality and every fevered word that flew out his mouth and past his gigantic chin was like a dagger in the eye of his enemies. However, even the highest flyers can be deflated, and in April this year, the QT bubble was burst in devastating fashion. Grindhouse, his old-school double bill with bestest buddy Robert Rodriguez, was a tremendous flop at the American Box Office, US cinemagoers apparently unable to sniff out a bargain unless it's repeatedly running them over in a big black car.
The powers that be have thereby decided to evict both Planet Terror and Death Proof from the Grindhouse, unceremoniously cutting the movie in two and kindly letting European audiences pay to see both movies. Planet Terror is currently still without a UK release date, but Death Proof is already revving its engine for a September opening. AWOL are the fake trailers that accompanied both pictures in its original incarnation (they're available on the internet, but that surely defeats the entire point) as is the context in which Death Proof should be taken: how many people will really know why the movie is scratched to buggery, missing scenes and is so intentionally cheesy?
If you're in on the joke and understand the concept of a grindhouse film - terribly trashy movies that don't skimp on blood and scares - then Death Proof is lots of fun; a genuinely enjoyable guilty pleasure that revels in its own low-budget lunacy. However, the more casual cinema patrons hoping to see "a new Quentin Tarantino movie" are going to be left sorely disappointed: tongue-in-cheek or not, Death Proof basically amounts as a talented director pissing about in-between serious projects. As an anomaly, a curio, even as half a movie, it's a winner. As a stand-alone feature, it struggles to stand up to close scrutiny.
The story of a stuntman and his fetish for auto-erotica could be written on the back of a matchbook, split as it is into two separate but corresponding stories. The first half sees four girls getting drunk and dirty at a filthy old bar in town, where they meet the sinister Stuntman Mike (Russell). The latter half sees Mike in pursuit of four new female targets, consisting of Abbie (Dawson), Lee (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead), Kim (Tracey Thoms) and stunt girl Zoe (Bell, playing herself). In both stories, Mike uses his "death proof" car to hunt the girls down and get his rocks off.
Even taking into consideration the fact that Death Proof is supposed to be a B-Movie - and as such, is intentionally poorly edited, appallingly dubbed and cobbled together - it's bafflingly inconsistent. The scratched film certainly looks the part, while audio is badly synched, scenes are spliced together in a slapdash fashion and the camera work is shaky. It's a charming and well-meaning idea, but this amateur effect only applies to the first half of the movie. The second half, shot in glorious technicolour (except for a Kill Bill-esque slip into black and white), is immaculately shot and acted, Tarantino circling the camera around his girls in a seven minute uninterrupted take like a consummate pro. So is this a grindhouse movie or not? Intentional inconsistency is no excuse.
Despite his aping of B-movie directors like Roger Corman, Death Proof is still very much a Quentin Tarantino film; characters spend what seems like an eternity discussing moot points in that inimitable pop culture patter of his; people and themes pop up from Tarantino adventures been and gone; the requisite lingering foot shot makes an early appearance. But with all the wry nods and in-jokes and familiarities, ask yourself this: at what point does self-indulgence become parody? Tarantino spends so long referencing other films in the genre (many his own) there's precious little time for anything new. Only Russell, in full-on Insano mode, leaves a lasting impression as Stuntman Mike, stealing the entire movie from under the noses of his eight female co-stars, none of whom particularly argue their case well.
If you can forgive its flaws (both intentional and unintentional) and just go along for the ride, then Death Proof is tremendous fun once it kicks into gear. It seems like it takes forever to introduce Stuntman Mike but once Russell moseys into frame, it's game on. The crash in the first half easily ranks as one of Tarantino's most impressive set-pieces (so good you'll be glad it's replayed four times) and the stunt work from Bell in the second half is genuinely gripping: it'll have you digging your thumbs into your armrests.
However, if you're looking for something a little meatier than what's essentially a drive-in movie, then this isn't it. As part of something bigger, a more grandiose statement, it absolutely works. Without the context of Grindhouse, however, Death Proof comes across as little more than an exercise in vanity on behalf of the director, destined to be of interest only to die-hard fans and those old enough (and cool enough) to remember the kind of movies being parodied in the first place. The rest of us should continue waiting for Inglorious Bastards and, as much as it may pain Tarantino, maybe catch Death Proof on DVD. After all, nobody's perfect.