| The mixed bag Grindhouse is little more than the sum of its parts, so let's start by talking about those parts. A three-hour-and-20-minute tribute to a series of sleazy, big city movie theaters and the lowdown films they showed, Grindhouse begins with a trailer for a fictitious movie, Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez. It looks very much like a 1970s movie trailer, with Danny Trejo as a hired killer who is double-crossed by his employer (isn't this the same plot as the recent Shooter?). Three more phony trailers later crop up, with varied results. Edgar Wright's Don't is an inspired, hilarious horror trailer; Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS has one or two surprises, and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving is just vile and hateful.
Then we get our two features, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, each running about 80 minutes. Each film features a "missing reel," which was not an uncommon occurrence at the real Grindhouse. Rodriguez's film takes very seriously its dedication to its source; it's full of scratches, bad splices and clunky reel changes, and he makes very clever use of his "missing reel," using it to suddenly gather together all his various plot threads. Unfortunately, his story leaves quite a lot to be desired. A batch of zombies, mutated by a government warfare chemical, begins to attack a group of humans, led by Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), stripper Cherry (Rose McGowan) and sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn). The most inspired image, as seen in the posters and trailers, comes when Rose loses a leg and Wray replaces it with an automatic machine gun. Rodriguez also delivers a very funny "sex" scene crafted after so many bad movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its gimmick, however, Planet Terror is a crushingly routine action/chase/escape exercise. It uses CGI-enhanced zombies, and these modern-day special effects are jarringly out of place. Worse, Tarantino appears in a speaking role.
Tarantino also appears in his own film, Death Proof, which pays homage to Vanishing Point (1971), among other movies. It quickly flashes a different title ("Thunder" something) before the Death Proof title card comes on: an homage to the way that the Grindhouse re-titled and re-sold the same films several times. Death Proof pays a good deal less attention to looking like an old film and spends more time actually being shocking and unusual. Moreover, Tarantino employs his usual sleight-of-hand technique, drawing audiences into long conversations between characters before unleashing the actual plot. It's too bad more films don't spend time lingering in these weird corners, covering practically meaningless details in characters' lives. In any case, four sexy women go out for a night on the town. One is a local DJ (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), and another (Vanessa Ferlito) is just visiting. (The other two are played by Jordan Ladd and Monica Staggs.) Kurt Russell plays "Stuntman Mike," who drives a vicious black muscle car and likes to test its mettle by slamming into other cars. But Mike meets his match when he later turns his attention on a second group of girls, Kim (Tracie Thoms), Zoe (real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). They all work in the movies (three of them are currently employed on a "cheerleader" movie), and two are stuntwomen. I won't say what happens next, but it's a delightfully intense, revved-up chase scene shot with amazing clarity, speed and finesse. It's an exhilaratingly physical event that probably will not be equaled this year. Unfortunately, Tarantino's writing seems to have hit a rut; the language here isn't quite as musical as before. He hits the same rhythms but never quite manages a moment of beautiful surprise like the "pot belly" monologue in Pulp Fiction. And the two films share some of the same crossover elements, thereby killing the idea of two standalone films, and slightly cheapening one another.
And so, for a more accurate reading, here is our final score:
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino) ***
Don't (Edgar Wright) ***1/2
Machete (Robert Rodriguez) **1/2
Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez) **
Thanksgiving (Eli Roth) [no stars]
Werewolf Women of the SS (Rob Zombie) **1/2
Now, what about the package as a whole? How does Grindhouse compare to the real Grindhouse? Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't have a clear goal as to what they were trying to accomplish. Parts of Grindhouse sneer at their source material, while others embrace it; there's no balancing act between the two. The old Grindhouse movies were deliberately provocative and deliberately exploitative. They contained a built-in creativity as filmmakers were forced to work within restrained budgets in the outer fringes of the film business. Grindhouse has the "deliberate" part down, but it gets bogged down in the rest. It was obviously made with a large budget, great amounts of creative control and the seal of approval of mainstream Hollywood. As one wise writer once pointed out, you can't set out to make a cult film. It has to become one on its own. (See Showgirls for a recent example.) At the time, Grindhouse viewers probably didn't think much about the whole "Grindhouse" phenomenon; they just wanted to see some fun movies. It's only in retrospect that the movies and the experience have taken on any importance. It's too bad that Tarantino and Rodriguez's film didn't try to comment on this, as Pulp Fiction once commented on the nature of narrative film.
It also occurred to me that, while the real Grindhouse dealt equally with sex and violence, Grindhouse heavily tips toward the violence. To make a sex film, one needs to loosen up a few inhibitions first, embrace a certain "softness." I suspect that both Tarantino and Rodriguez are too boyish, too wound up in being "cool," to face the potential embarrassment that a sex film could bring.
Truth be told, watching this film, I started to long for a double feature of real Grindhouse films. Not long ago, Tarantino began re-releasing some of these classics under his now-defunct "Rolling Thunder" wing: Detroit 9000 (1973), Switchblade Sisters (1975), Mighty Peking Man (1977) and Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981). Here's an idea: Tarantino should ditch Rodriguez, take Death Proof and pair it with one other classic Grindhouse favorite of his choosing. Now that would effectively satisfy the "tribute" urge and give audiences some real bang for their buck. (See also a two-month schedule from San Francisco's Strand Theater.)