In spring this year, US audiences were presented with Grindhouse, a three-hour-plus homage to sleazy 1970s exploitation cinema comprising two features - Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof - and a handful of trailers for fake B-movies. But most people baulked at the prospect of a long, gory paean to an art form they never loved in the first place and so Grindhouse was a huge flop. Its constituent parts are now being released separately, with Death Proof the first to arrive here. Extended from its original running time of 90 minutes to almost two hours, it represents a sort of embarrassment of riches, only without the riches.
Tarantino has suffered in the past from a size problem. Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown felt perfectly scaled (and pretty much perfect all round), but Pulp Fiction was seriously flabby and Kill Bill was so overweight that it had to be carved into two parts. The director's eagerness to dish up such generous portions would be endearing if he weren't serving slop these days. For anyone who believed Tarantino was capable of greatness, Death Proof can only induce despair.
The picture follows the efforts of a craggy psychopath called Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) to slaughter as many comely young women as possible with his customised Dodge Charger - either by speeding towards their oncoming vehicles or by swerving so violently that any unfortunate passenger he's carrying will be smashed against the partition separating her from him. (You'll know the feeling if you've ever been on a double-decker bus going over speed bumps.) Mike sets his sights on a gang of friends boozing in Texas, but the heart sinks when the whole scenario starts again an hour later with Mike terrorising a different group led by Zoë (Zoë Bell, who was Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill). The jive talk that goes pointlessly round in circles, and the familiar references to old films and TV shows, suggest Tarantino is writing on autopilot, while the interminable takes make you think he's switched on the camera and then wandered off for a burrito. The credits read "Edited by Sally Menke", but "Not edited by anyone" would be more accurate.
There was always a tacky, low-rent undercurrent to Tarantino, but what's missing here is the imaginative skill that once offset it. In his best work, he purloined elements from the crummy films that shaped his sensibility and took them to a higher level. With Death Proof, he shows that he can make irredeemable trash without any artistic aspirations. That he succeeds is no cause for cheer, any more than it would be if, say, Burt Bacharach confined himself to composing football chants.
I liked the attempts to pass the film off as an authentic poor-quality relic - the deliberately scratched, faded print keeps jumping, and slips into black and white at one point. It would have been more convincing if the film itself had been a period piece, but the sight of mobile phones and the mentions of iPods and CGI pull us out of any such illusion. The trouble is that Death Proof needs that illusion in order to work.
It's uncomfortable enough when the camera leers over female behinds in tight shorts, or when Zoë persuades a redneck to let her borrow his car by inviting him to have his wicked way with her oblivious friend, who is dressed conveniently as a cheerleader. The pretence that we're watching a genuine 1970s B-movie at least offers some tenuous justification for such immature touches - that is how these films really were, we can tell ourselves. Without that, Death Proof loses its thin protective coating of irony, which is about all it has going for it.
Goodness knows Tarantino needs whatever armour he can get. Nothing in his writing suggests he has ever actually spoken to a member of the opposite sex - he gives his female characters pages of dialogue, then has them talk like a comic-book nerd's idea of the perfect woman. That's the least of the film's woes. We should ask instead how a director who was on fire only 15 years ago can have resorted so quickly to treading water. If Death Proof proves anything, it's that creative death can strike the liveliest talents. All told, it's a right reservoir dog's dinner.
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Syndromes and a Century (15)
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