There are already approximately 239 reviews of this film floating around the internet and in your local papers, which makes a reviewer like myself feel a little like a condom on the Isle of Lesbos. We know we're dealing with a double feature homage to the old grindhouse films of the 70's where reels were schlepped around in the back of a pea green Gremlin from one city to the next until finally ending their run with several missing and a print that looked like a few hookers did lines off of it in the projector room. The films were outrageous, violent, shocking and if you were really lucky, perverse as hell. But that's what made them cool. That's want made you want to take up smoking Pall Malls and try to keep Wild Turkey down. They were bad. Good bad.
Grindhouse is very good bad.
Robert Rodriguez (oh, you know, lot's of shoot 'em up and hoot 'em up fests) digs out an old zombie script he wrote and shelved years earlier called Planet Terror and has at it with a cigar in his teeth and a mustard-stained wife beater on his back. The set up is, as it should be, very simple: El Wray (Freddie Rodriguez, Six Feet Under, Lady in the Water) is a bad-ass, tow-truck driver on the outs with his go-go dancing girlfriend Cherry Darling (the very "Charming" Rose McGowan). She's pissed at him for giving up on them, and he wants his jacket back. That is until he has to rescue her from a few flesh-eaters who have the undead nerve to steal one of her gorgeous gams. Cherry, as can be expected, freaks out a little about losing one of the tools of her trade to which he irritatingly replies "Stop crying over...spilled milk!" Ah, love... asshole American style.
Yes children, the dialogue in our first feature is wonderfully over the top and satirically hilarious without coming off like something out of Another Scary Movie. It's as grindhouse-floor sticky and slimy as it should be, and drips from the actors' mouths like a leaky piece of Freshen Up gum. Stuff like a Cherry-buster retort to an earlier, rather blunt El Wray comment that purrs "There's a fine line between frank...and dick" is the kind of cheap gold we're talking about here. What's amazing is that nearly every moment of this film is imbued with that same old-skool/cheesy-cool flair yet never feels, well, cheesy for any decade. Rodriguez has too much love for what he's doing here to let us down. And every single second of his passionate print aims, shoots, and more than manages to deliver.
Then there's the usual, yet cleverly ball-twisting, corrupt military plot that takes us to a standoff in a barbecue joint, an infected infested hospital, and eventually a shockingly grotesque "Girls in Cages" type bunker sequence, with the usual plethora of colorful town characters who refuse to give up the ghost or their petty squabbles. And, of course, there's that highly anticipated Tom Savini cameo (not one to reach backwards, his effects were some of the best I've seen to date from him) that just plain "rocks your socks" like we've come to expect. Rodriguez's vision here never feels like he's gone too literally back to the well, either his own or the one that serves the genre to which he's paying tribute, and by the close of Planet Terror, you've seen all the gazongas, ghouls, gross-outs and gun play that you could ever want. I'll tell you this, if you don't want to see the first half of this double feature, you might be dead. If by the end you aren't cheering and spilling your Fresca onto the floor, you probably should be.
Just like the few genius teasers before the first feature gets loaded, after the customary intervening previews to films that may or may not ever exist (executed to genre perfection by Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, among others) we're served up our next fat film burger called Death Proof. Tarantino's ode to the slasher film, like his car wielding psycho Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell in the greatest celluloid moment of what is already an exceptionally cool career) takes you down a familiar road, only to suddenly veer off into the prickly cattle fencing for parts unknown. Paradoxically, like a lot of Quentin's stuff, Death Proof is probably best analyzed within the catalog of his own career. While riding the camera as it circles endlessly around our first group of nubile heroines, we're forced to come to terms with the fact that Tarantino is trying something new with something old here and we should just wait patiently for the payoff. The characters of Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito, "CSI: New York"), Shanna (Jordan Ladd, Cabin Fever) and Jungle Julia Lucai (Sydney Tammiia Poitier, daughter of Sidney Poitier) talk like girls chained up since birth in the director's basement, which, at first, is a twist to the Tarantino backlog that is very cool to see. We get to enjoy a feminine version of the rapid fire repertoire and convivial contentiousness of doomed friendship that we've come to expect, as we wait to see where it goes, and hopefully, goes wrong. But it eventually becomes painfully clear that Tarantino isn't concerned with it going anywhere. He's falling in love and wants us to fall along with him. Only, watching Quentin Tarantino fall in love is kind of like watching amateur porn: at first it's disturbingly exciting, raw, and titillatingly blemished. But after twenty minutes, you start to think you're wasting your wad. I went to see Grindhouse alone, and believe me, it's worth it. I even sat up by the projector to hear it tick off each sleazy foot of film. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have brought a girl to make out with during these scenes (though she'd probably rather listen in, which could also be good eventually). Don't get me wrong, these tart and tender bits have their moments and are frame full of hot chick parts, but frankly, they're too fucking long, man.
However, by the time Kurt hits the scene, and we've been treated to some more ricochet monologues about the inanity of these character's surprisingly mundane lives over rounds of shots and LIT's, we just want him to tear shit up. And just as if our wishes were hot-wired into his stunt-car radio, good old Cash does just that with aplomb. Do we know why he's bent on fender-fisting these delicious young ladies? No, no we don't. Do we care? Gods, no. At this point, party crashers, we're behind him all the way. Riding shotgun in his murder weapon is where the film really took off for me, and even if the horrific manner in which he exacts his modus operandi makes us secretly wish our seats had a couple of sweet airbags (or at least our dates), we're up for more of Stuntman Mike's unique way of shutting some right sassy bitches right the hell up.
But this is exactly where Quentin wants us...the sick, five-headed bastard. No sooner has the twisted wheels stopped turning, we're back to tagging along with another fiery, fair-featured, foursome. Being chased now is naive actress, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Final Destination 3), Hollywood makeup hottie Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, Sin City), stuntwomen Kim (Tracie Thoms, "Cold Case") and Zoe J. Bell (real life stunt double for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and Kill Bill: Volume 2). All are charmingly chipper and chatty and here we go again: hours of boyfriend talk, gooey gossip and tangential tidbits of titty-teasing, turmoil. At this point, I'm counting the minutes until Tarantino calls for the stunt doubles. Once three of the girls stop gabbing long enough to take a test drive in a much sought after and coveted white 1970 Dodge Challenger, I'm ready to CB old Mike myself and tip him off to their location. To be fair, there is a bit of impressive stunt work to come, even if it seems overly set up like the supposed lay of the century that ends up all noise and rather repetitive. But I kept reminding myself that we're supposed to maybe chuckle at some of these amateurish editing decisions as we watch Bell show off her stuff, and that even though we've been more or less forced to hang out with our sisters for too long, we haven't been force-fed any formulaic storytelling or perfunctory CGI. What we're getting is hot bacon, hold the eggs. And when it gets to sizzling, all is well with the world. Then, just when we're looking for a particularly juicy piece, here comes the man of the hour. Only, without giving too much away, our favorite stuntman bites off a lot more than he can chew and his comeuppance is an overly-cooked, retro joy to behold. By the end, Tarantino finally gets us to where he was going all along, only the road to ground-breaking, feminine empowerment never felt so much like an occasionally interrupted powernap.
The fortunate thing about all the hoopla leading up to this director double cheeseburger is that the whole time I was feasting on Grindhouse I was rooting for it, and it certainly deserved some applause, if maybe a push now and then, too. In the end, I felt duly stuffed and satisfied, and no amount of residual tummy ache was going to ruin the experience. After all, if you leave a theater alone after watching a film full of hot women and the only "putting out" you're thinking about involves hoping these two sick bastards put out another Grindhouse double soon, well, you either need a stiff drink, or you've just been done good, son.