Of all the guilty pleasures at Cannes this year -- and there were guilty pleasures at Cannes this year, for all of the art and drama -- surely the most tempting had to be the extended cut of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Originally part of the vast and sprawling Grindhouse experiment, now QT's car-crashin', smack-talkin' carnival of mayhem was going to show on its own. Which, to be honest, it always kinda did; Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, for all it's sins, nonetheless felt like a '70s trash-gasm; Death Proof, with all the yakkety-yak and funny bits, felt too modern. If I were smarter, I'd say something like I wanted to see Death Proof liberated from the cage of the Grindhouse conceit; really, though, I just wanted a nice snack of all-American cheese in-between the thoughtful, contemplative dramas; a little re-tox, if you will.
And Death Proof does have all the nutrition of a narcotic compound -- and making it bigger didn't mean making it any classier. Death Proof is a misshapen hybrid of early DePalma and '70s car-counterculture epics as a woman-watching killer who executes with his sweet-ass ride plays cat-and-mouse at full throttle. One set of sexy, leggy mice gets killed in what may be the best-shot high-speed car-wreck mass-murder sequence of all time -- a singular, if grisly honor. The next time our high-octane homicide artist goes after a car full of girls, though, the new set of mice are a bit better prepared ...
Death Proof is, at heart, a movie about sexy ladies and the scar-marked aging ex-stuntman who wants them all dead. If there's any genius in it, it comes in two things. First is the casting of Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike. Stuntman Mike gives rambling, self-deprecating soliloquies about the work he used to do " ... doubling Bob Urich on Gavilan ..." -- he's been around Hollywood for years, and so, too has Russell -- and, like his character, he's had his share of action. Russell plays with his b-movie icon status here, and whether he's doing a John Wayne imitation -- seemingly unaware that the young kids he's mocking and threatening have no clue who John Wayne is -- or looking dead in the camera inviting us to get in his death car with him and go to work, he's riveting and ripe.
The other is the car chases and car wrecks. Tarantino shot Death Proof himself, and with Sally Menke editing, the auto action is vulgar and visceral. The crash that breaks the film in two is cut perfectly, while still serving as the ultimate Driver's Ed cautionary tale. Later, when Stuntman Mike is chasing the movie-making friends Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thomas) and Zoe (Zoe Bell) -- he's happened on the girls running a simple-yet-dangerous stunt they call "Ship's Mast" in a car isn't theirs -- his pursuit goes differently, thanks to Kim's background as a stunt driver and Zoe's work as a stunt-woman. That sequence of stunts and action isn't Raiders-level (which is, to me, still the best action-pursuit sequence in film), but it's close -- a low-tech, fast-paced stunt sequence that stays low to the ground and growls when Tarantno puts the pedal down.
But those sequences were in Grindhouse -- what's new in Death Proof? Well, a lot of jibber-jabber. It's Tarantino jibber-jabber -- quick and juicy and deadpan and blunt and baroque -- but it's jibber-jabber nonetheless, minor time-filler between a few moments of twisted-metal glory or twisted-humor bleakness that make you sit up in your seat. Watching Death Proof is a bit like watching a stadium-filling rockstar play the Guitar Hero videogame -- they're probably doing it well, and there's probably a few challenges in it, and they're really enjoying themselves -- you just wish you could be watching them actually play guitar. If Eli Roth -- director of Cabin Fever -- made Death Proof, I'd be impressed; since Quentin Tarantino -- director of Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction -- made it, I'm kind of non-plussed. I had fun watching Tarantino have fun with Death Proof -- sexy girls! Rock and roll! Blood and gore! -- but now I really, really want to see him get to back to work.