Grindhouse: Planet Terror and Death Proof (review)

Let’s All Go to the Movies!

This is the iconic image of Grindhouse, and it’s brilliant and hilarious and audacious and outrageous and just so, so right: a girl with a machine gun for a leg, and getting off on it. I mean, it’s… perfect. It’s sex and violence played with typical male belligerence combined with aggressive feminism — a chick with a phallic appendage shooting her wad at dudes! — all in one ridiculous, absurd, wonderful package. It’s “exploitive” in the sense of those old Roger Corman flicks that were meant to be offensive and shocking, and yet it’s not, either, somehow: this woman, for all that she is manipulated by the outlandish plot into this preposterous situation, is not an object, not a victim. Call it postexploitive, an appropriation of the tropes of old B movies for a 21st-century purpose.
The image is from Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the first flick in the double feature of the impudent and wildly entertaining Grindhouse — the second is Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof — but the same could be said of the entire project on the whole: it’s not just two cheesy movies slapped back to back, it’s two deliberately cheesy movies offered with a wink and a nudge and a whopping dollop of love and nostalgia. It’s meta in a way that the movies it’s aping never were — they were the opposite of meta, made on the quick and on the cheap and as ready paychecks for everyone involved — and yet there’s a sweet sadness to Grindhouse too: it laments the absence of energy and enthusiasm and sheer what-the-fuckness that’s missing from The Movies once the B’s were taken over by the corporate studios from the lean and hungry indie filmmakers and become the A’s.

And that passion — that pure love of the wildness of The Movies — comes bursting out, in all its icky, gooey glory, in Planet Terror, a pastiche of zombie movies that is daring and disgusting and as much fun as I’ve had at the movies in a long time. (Oh my god, please don’t bring kids to this: Terror alone should have ensured Grindhouse got a rating of NC-17, not an R, it’s that gross. Tender eyes that can’t yet make the distinction between fantasy and reality need to be kept far, far away from this.) A presentation of, ahem, “Rodriguez International Pictures” — devotees of Mystery Science Theater 3000 know all about American International Pictures — stars the wonderful Freddy Rodriguez (Bobby, Lady in the Water; no relation to the director) as, well, a dangerous dude about whom we know very little, and Rose McGowan (The Black Dahlia, Monkeybone) as the chick with the machine gun leg, though she starts out with a full complement of fleshy limbs. The less said about Terror the better, because Rodriguez is all about getting you to scream and laugh as a crowd, and I don’t want to spoil any of the jokes or grossouts for you; this won’t be the same experience at home on DVD, so catch this one at the multiplex with a rowdy crowd.

Grindhouse isn’t just about a lost attitude with which cinematic stories are presented — it’s about the experience of seeing a movie in a movie theater with a lot of people, with reveling in that group experience, with reminding us what going to the movies used to be like before we all started downloading movies and watching them on our laptops, or (for those of us more law-abiding) sitting on our couches and playing DVDs. This is no clean, digitally remastered presentation: these movies are a mess, if a lovingly re-created mess, of pops and hisses and scratched film and bad audio and worse projection jobs: the film stock gets “caught” in the “projector” more than once, and there are “missing reels” interrupting the storytelling, such as it is. We never learn the mystery of Freddy’s character, for one, because his revelation comes in one of those “missing reels,” and that tickles: director Rodriguez (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, Sin City) is playing with the conventions of filmic storytelling, reminding us how filmed stories are built and that sometimes, it doesn’t matter where a character is coming from as long as where he’s going to is diverting enough.

There’s a missing-reel joke in Tarantino’s Death Proof that is similarly wickedly funny and smartly teasing: the film is building to an early cinemorgasmic peak and then — after an apologetic placard about a missing reel, sorry for the inconvenience — skips right to the metaphoric afterglow cigarette, and there was a distinctively frustrated huff in the guffaws of the pumped-up audience I saw this flick with when we realized what Tarantino was pulling. We loved being fooled like that, and yet: damn! Now, in retrospect, though, I think that was actually symptomatic of the problem that ultimately drags Death Proof down, makes it less successful overall than Planet Terror: Q.T. is batshit terrified of women, of female power, and when he’s trying to deal with that here is when Death loses its momentum; that missing scene would have been all about women’s power over men. (By comparison, there’s nothing in Terror that leads you to suspect that Rodriguez has any hangups about the material he’s presenting that is preventing him from dealing with it straight-up.) I’ve been hard on Tarantino in the past, but now I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, poor thing: he’s trying, he really is, not to be such a dork about us girls, but he’s not quite there yet.

See, he’s created a kind of serial killer in Stuntman Mike, a guy who gets off on killing bunches of pretty thangs all at once with his souped-up deathproof stunt car. (As with Rodriguez, Tarantino wrote as well as directed his feature here.) Kurt Russell (Poseidon, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story) is a hoot as Mike, and he’s a genius bit of casting, as the uncredited Bruce Willis (Fast Food Nation, Over the Hedge) is in a small part in Terror — these guys are our B heroes of today — but while Willis’s small part is of perfectly adequate emphasis and importance and screentime, Russell’s is far less than it should be: Stuntman Mike is not the focus of Death as he should be. Instead, it’s all about the girls: Q.T. likes girl talk, or at least how he thinks girls talk, and he indulges himself in long sequences of gals hanging out and talking about boys and stuff before Mike comes along to do his thing. It would be one thing if the film suggested that Mike got a kick out of seeing girls be all girly before he killed them, but that’s not the case: Mike is not privy to these conversations: it’s Tarantino getting off on these girly chats, which perhaps wouldn’t be such an issue if they didn’t, er, grind the film to a halt too many times: Death loses too much momentum — we could have done with a few more missing reels.

Still, Death gets a pass from me because the girls are kick-ass cool — I particularly like Vanessa Felito (Man of the House, Spider-Man 2) who’s visiting Arlene Austin in the first sequence, and real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell making her acting debut (albeit as herself) in the second sequence; check her out in the documentary Double Dare and see for yourself how damn awesome a chick she is. And because the last 40 minutes or so of Death feature some amazing stuntwork and stunt driving, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that is as fresh and organic as anything Roger Corman would have done, and like we hardly ever see at the movies these days. This pure-adrenaline cinema more than makes up for the long tedious stretches that come before.

And together with Planet Terror, this is one of the most exciting movie experiences in ages, one that demands to be seen on a big screen. (Don’t step out between the feature or you’ll miss the spectacularly spot-on faux trailers; my favorite is for the “film” Don’t, by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright.) “Get more out of life — go to a movie,” implores the “theater advertising” in the “intermission” — and it’s good advice. You’ll be sorry if you catch Grindhouse only on DVD.

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