*A guest review today, from Nick Schager, of Slant Magazine
In a pop culture landscape as hungrily cannibalistic as today's, cinematic nostalgia and homage has lost much of its once enticing luster. The indulgent fun of referencing and rehashing the past has worn so thin that even VH1's gaggle of third-rate Best Week Ever and I Love the [Insert Decade] talking heads seem barely capable of mustering enthusiasm for the latest derogatory smack-down on their own industry brethren. The cultural infatuation with retro navel-gazing is now pronounced to the point that it brings into question whether the practice hasn't seriously debilitated our collective imaginations, which have become so narrowly focused that it sometimes feels as if half of our mainstream entertainment takes as its primary influence mainstream entertainment. It's an inward circle that -- at least in the cinematic arena -- proceeds with no clear direction and even less of a meaningful destination, with deconstruction often taking a back seat to regurgitation as countless filmmakers prove themselves stunted adolescents whose worldview is primarily confined to the movies and TV shows of their youths.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that my skepticism was high for Grindhouse, the nasty, sleazy love child of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that aims to recreate -- with every celluloid scratch, Missing Reel title card, cheesy theater advertisement and titillating coming attraction -- the experience of a '70s B-movie twin bill. A dutiful and reverential homage to their beloved exploitation flicks, Rodriguez and Tarantino's two-headed beast delivers separate full-length films, Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof, sandwiched together by hilarious phony trailers from Rob Zombie ("Werewolf Women of the SS"), Edgar Wright ("Don't!"), Eli Roth ("Thanksgiving") and Rodriguez himself ("Machete") that nearly outshine the main events. Theirs is a joint project of exacting replication, though the directors' intentions and execution are -- surprisingly, given the "All for one, and one for schlock" unity that infuses the endeavor -- far more divergent than one might expect. Rodriguez goes for full-blooded faithfulness, Tarantino goes for genre analysis and reconfiguration, and the results are, ultimately, about as coherent and fulfilling as a typical grindhouse double-feature.
The thrill of exploitation cinema came not just from its subversive, amoral extremism, but also from its furious, sexually-charged, who-gives-a-shit attitude. Such a mind-set was the byproduct of being made on the fringe by marginalized craftsman, and came through via its non-Shakespearean thespians' blunt performances and an aesthetic that radiated scraggly, no-nonsense cheapness. Grindhouse is gleefully dedicated to foisting three-hours-worth of unsavory grime on spick-and-span cineplexes. Yet as the creation of two celebrated and commercially successful directors working with star-studded casts and a heavyweight studio in their corner, its ethos -- unlike its venerated predecessors -- isn't one of outsider rebellion but of insider movie-geek goof-offery. Consequently, both films' attempts to push the envelope are hampered by a sense that the whole raunchy thing is, first and foremost, a joke intended to satiate fanboys' hunger for allusions to their favorite under-the-radar actors (look, there's Tom Savini getting torn apart by the undead!) and films (yay, subtle nods to Zombie!).
In terms of straight-up gonzo B-movie madness, Planet Terror is Grindhouse's victor, offering up a Texas-set zombie outbreak saga that's equal parts George Romero, Lucio Fulci and John Carpenter. Rodriguez mimics with such expertise that it's tough to resist his increasingly maniacal tale, which centers on the efforts of mysterious, tow truck-driving bandito Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his go-go-dancer ex-flame Cherry (Rose McGowan) as they struggle to survive hordes of monsters created by a noxious military chemical weapon. It's a premise that the Sin City director lustily dives head-first into, piling on so much gushing blood, gnarly gore, tongue-in-cheek humor (the finest recurring bit revolving around Cherry's dream of being a stand-up comedian) and visual gags (prolonged zooms, bad lighting, film stock damage) that his uninhibited zeal becomes infectious. At the point McGowan's deliciously seductive Cherry has her amputated leg replaced by a machine gun – which gets a thorough workout during an explosive finale -- the film comes close to achieving a giddy, trashy euphoria.
What holds Rodriguez's effort back from being an outright blast is the self-consciousness (and resultant toothlessness) that permeates all of Grindhouse, with the affectedness of every print blemish, excessively exploding head and corny one-liner undercutting the film's spirit of taboo-tweaking outrageousness. Still, Planet Terror benefits from its maker's ability to moderately subsume his CG-loving stylistic personality in service of slavish genre cliché devotion, a goal that Quentin Tarantino proves wholly uninterested in achieving with Death Proof. Beset by the Pulp Fiction auteur's trademark talkativeness, the second part of Grindhouse's twofer always keeps its "directed by Quentin Tarantino" pedigree front and center, spending the majority of its first half on scenes in which groups of girls engage in banal and insipid conversations about sex and movies. Shout-outs to obscure TV shows (Robert Urich's Vegas) and films (Vanishing Point, on numerous occasion) pepper the inane banter, which QT wants to use as a vehicle for eliciting empathy with his foxy ladies, but which instead merely diffuses most of the high-wire, anything-goes energy that the preceding Planet Terror and mock trailers had so robustly established.
Luckily, Death Proof has a few aces up its sleeve. The first is Kurt Russell, whose old-school charm and viciousness as Stuntman Mike -- a facially scarred sexual predator whose lethal weapon is his crash-car -- enlivens the film with macho electricity. The second is Tarantino's canny, ulterior modus operandi, as his synthesis of three distinct grindhouse genres -- the serial killer thriller, the dragster flick, and the cheerleader film -- is designed as both celebration and critique. Tarantino deliberately delivers misogynistic slasher-film goods at first, and then offers a corrective by turning the tables on vehicular rapist Stuntman Mike via a second foursome of hotties who, when not gabbing in a coffee shop (in a femme variation of Reservoir Dogs' intro), prove to be cheery ass-kickers intent on taking back the night. In its desire to comment on (rather than simply reiterate) its source material, Death Proof proves the cleverer of Grindhouse's entries. Unfortunately, that doesn't preclude it from also being the less exhilarating and amusing of the two, though if Tarantino doesn't match Rodriguez's avalanche of exploitation lunacy, he nonetheless at least finds in stuntwoman Zoë Bell -- a badass whose car hood daredevilry is awe-inspiring – an authentic, go-for-broke B-movie goddess for the 21st century.