There's nothing quite like the painful sting of disappointment that comes from anticipating something, only to be let down when it fails to live up to your expectations. Every time I feel that extreme sort of disappointment, I promise myself that I will never again get excited about something. I promise myself that I will no longer count down the days until some new album drops or wait anxiously for some new film to open. But then something like Grindhouse comes along, and the geeky fanboy in me takes over, and all I can do is think about what a great movie this is going to be, and how I can't wait to see it in the theaters four or five times, and then buy the DVD and watch all the bonus material, absorbing every aspect of what will no doubt be a cinematic masterpiece. And no matter how many times I go through this (although I must admit it is less and less frequently as I grow older), it still hurts when the film is a let down. It especially hurts when the film is as big of a letdown as Grindhouse.
Now, before the rest of you diehard geeks lose your minds and start sending me emails telling me how stupid I am, and how much I don't know about grindhouse cinema, let me break a few things down for you. First, I am well-versed in grindhouse, I've seen thousands (and I do mean thousands) of blaxploitation flicks, spaghetti westerns, hack 'em and stack 'em horror films, chop sockey epics, Italian zombie nightmares, sexploitation strokers and everything else you can possible imagine. Hell, I own a copy of Black Lolita, the only blaxploitation, softcore porn to ever be made in 3-D. Second, the films that self-important films snobs call grindhouse are not something I recently discovered on home video, or even watched back in the 1980s and 90s when I was slaving away behind the counter at a video store. No, I was watching exploitation crap like The Giant Spider Invasion and Dragons Die Hard in rundown theaters with roaches and rats running across your feet. I saw David Cronenberg's The Brood at the drive in, where it scared the crap out of me.
What's the point in sharing all of this with you? The point is that I know something about grindhouse films. In fact, I've probably forgotten more than most people have ever known. So, if any of you get upset by this review--especially if you haven't seen the film yet, or your knowledge is limited to having only seen whatever dozen or so films you feel makes you an expert--please, keep it to yourself.
Presented as a double feature, complete with trailers for coming attractions, Grindhouse is the latest collaboration of filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Ever since it was first announced, the project was touted as a loving homage to exploitation cinema by two of the most revered directors in pop cinema. And I must admit, even I was a bit excited at the prospect of what these two filmmakers could potentially achieve.
The film starts out with a fake trailer for a film called Machete, starring craggily faced tough guy Danny Trejo as a Mexican day laborer hired as an assassin, and things start out with a ton of promise. We then movie into Rodriguez's segment of Grindhouse, a film called Planet Terror. Audacious and over-the-top, Planet Terror takes place in a small Texas town where a biological weapon is released, turning everyone into a rabid, fleash-eating monsters. Think of everything from Romero's Night of the Living Dead (as well as The Crazies), Fulici's Zombie, Cronenberg's Rabid, and quite possible one hundred other films, and you'll begin to get an idea of the pastiche that is Planet Terror. Rose McGowan co-stars as Cherry, a melancholy go-go dancer who decides to leave her miserable existence in search of a better life. Her path crosses with Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), her ex-lover who is still upset that she stole his jacket. But their strained reunion is bittersweet at best, because all around them people are turning into zombie-like killers. Meanwhile, emergency room doctor Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is also dealing with the impending zombie apocalypse, as well as a jealous husband (Josh Brolin) who wants to kill her for having a lesbian affair. Keep in mind, while all of this is going on, there are is a series of other subplots, as well as the zombies running rampant.
Utilizing everything and the kitchen sink, Rodriguez has gone balls out with his portion of Grindhouse, delivering the better of the two feature film segments. Rodriguez's script is packed with characters and knowing nods to other films, and at times it gets a bit convoluted because he has clearly made the decision to cram at least three film's worth of material into one flick. As a filmmaker, Rodriguez's strongpoint has never been his writing, but his visual style, which is once again proven in Planet Terror. He has reached deep into his bag of visual effects tricks to make Planet Terror look like a grainy, scratched up film that was made three decades ago. At times it is overkill, but by and large it works, especially during a pivotal sequence when a title card pops up announcing a "missing reel," and the film jump cuts ahead to a point where nearly every crucial plot development has been revealed, leaving the audience completely in the dark. In fact, it's at that moment that Planet Terror comes as close to great as it ever will, and really hits its stride.
Immediately following Planet Terror are a trio of fake trailers by guest directors Eli Roth (Thanksgiving), Edgar Wright(Don't Scream) and Rob Zombie (Werewolf Women of the S.S. ). These Kentucky Fried Movie inspired segments, which constitute less than ten minutes of the entire 185 minutes (that's three hours and five minutes, folks) are ultimately the best parts of Grindhouse.
What follows next is Tarantino's segment, Death Proof, an occasionally entertaining, but overall thoroughly disappointing mess that definitely stands out as not only the director's first failure, but also the Achilles' heel that threatens to ruin Grindhouse.
Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a sadistic killer who uses his reinforced muscle car as a deadly weapon as he hunts beautiful young women. Death Proof starts with a protracted sequence that sets up a group of nubile babes spewing some of Tarantino's worst dialog, who cross paths with Stuntman Mike at a bar in Texas. The whole thing feels like the set up for the entire movie, but it is really nothing more than an incredibly dragged out introduction that could have been cut down to five minutes or so. The film then jumps ahead an indeterminate amount of time and, in essence, starts all over again as Tarantino introduces a new gaggle of hotties, including Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself. Following his earlier introductory sequence that was just plain bad and boring, Tarantino's second expository build up with his new potential victims eventually degenerates into something that comes dangerously close to excruciating. The dialog reads at best like scraps he discarded from other scripts, and at worst like someone trying to sound like Tarantino. Either way the dialog is by and large lifeless and uninspired, with the occasional gem of a "motherfucker" here and there. Things finally take a turn for the better when the hot babe trio finally runs afoul of Stuntman Mike. But the build up to that moment is hardly worth the few moments of tension and unexpected comedy. It isn't a case of a good film building to a great pay off, so much as it is a case of a bad film building to an it's-about-fucking-time-things-got-good finale.
On paper and even in the trailers, Grindhouse seems like a great idea. But the film, as the sum of all of its parts, is disappointing to say the least. I hesitate to call the film a failure, because Rodriguez segment is consistently entertaining, and the fake trailers steal the show. But Tarantino's segment is, no matter how you look at it, a major disappointment, and the best word to use in describing it has to be "failure."
The problem with Grindhouse is that both Rodriguez and Tarantino are tipping their hats and paying homage to not a single genre, but a collective of genres that by and large was not embodied by great films. Sure, Lucio Fulci made films with interesting moments, but as entire bodies of work, most just weren't that good. And Fulci is one of the better filmmakers to influence Grindhouse. What Rodriguez and Tarantino have set out to do is essentially recreate a type of film that was often hindered by bad writing, bad acting, and less than competent direction. It is as if they created a chart of what they would need to cobble together the ultimate schlocky exploitation films, without ever trying to improve on the formula. And since their first collaboration, From Dusk Till Dawn, already is what Grindhouse sets out to be, the overall shortcomings of this venture are all the more disappointing.
Of the two segments in Grindhouse, Rodriguez is the more successful with Planet Terror. Despite some serious flaws, the film has heart and soul. It bares the signature trademarks of Rodriguez's other work (including some of the weak ones), but the film manages to work for the most part. At the same time, when compared to something like James Gunn's recent film Slither, which does essentially what Grindhouse attempts to do, it is easy to see that it is possible to do a homage, while building a better beast in the process.
Where Grindhouse falls apart is in its second feature, Death Proof. If this film were made by anyone other Tarantino, it would be quickly dismissed as jumbled crap. It is too long, the script is weak, and when all is said and done, it fails to be what it sets out to be. Planet Terror remains true to its schlock cinema roots, but somewhere along the away Death Proof gets confused, as if Tarantino, in a panic felt he couldn't just make a junky B-movie, but instead had to try and infuse some of his past magic into the script. But the "magic" is stale and tired and, most important, out of place in this film. Tarantino tries to use some of the same gags and visual tricks Rodriguez employs with Planet Terror, including the "missing reel" bit, but nothing helps to salvage this stumbling mess. The never-ending scene with Dawson, Thoms, Bell and a forth, throw-away stock character is mind-blowingly out of place, and drags the film to a screeching halt.
Grindhouse is more of a missed opportunity than anything else. It is two well-revered filmmakers trying way too hard to recreate the magic of the films they grew up watching, when the reality is that nearly all of the past work of both Tarantino and Rodriguez already accomplished that task, and much better. The other reality is that the once disregarded films of the past have informed a whole generation of contemporary filmmakers, and the end result is that grindhouse flicks, or exploitation movies, or whatever you want to call the films that once graced run down inner city theaters and drive ins, have now become the mainstream. Recent films like Shaun of the Dead, Slither, Fearless, The Descent, The Host and dozens of others have all done what Grindhouse sets out to do, which is pay respect to the past work that inspired them. The difference with these other films is they don't make such a big deal out of it what they are doing, which is why they succeed. The unending proclamations of what Grindhouse is supposed to be only proves to set the film up for a greater fall when it stumbles along on its way. This is not so much a case of the emperors having no clothes, but they certainly are walking around with their asses exposed.
The bottom line is this: Grindhouse is not worth seeing in theaters, at least not at full price. Rent it on DVD, and if you must own it, at least wait until the supreme, deluxe, extended edition is released (most likely three months after the initial release).
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]