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Death Proof

The Weinstein Company // Unrated // December 16, 2008
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 8, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Outside of a couple of trips up to Raleigh for Retrofantasma, I don't think I've ever had a better time at the theater than I did with Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' double feature homage to sticky, sleazy exploitation flicks. I think a lot of that has more to do with the experience than the movies
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themselves...I mean, seeing grainy, battered nods to '70s cult cinema splattered across a fifty foot screen in a theater teeming with other schlock-horror geeks, and toss in a slew of cacklingly over-the-top trailers and vintage drive-in intros...? It's just not the same in a darkened living room with one or two other people, especially since The Weinstein Company opted against issuing the theatrical cut of Grindhouse on video, deciding instead to release extended cuts of Planet Terror and Death Proof on their own. I'm still a frothing-at-the-mouth fan of both of these flicks, but here's hoping something even close to that astonishingly ridiculous Japanese boxed set of Grindhouse will be aimed at these shores sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Death Proof plays kind of like a double feature in its own if there were a slasher-in-a-muscle-car flick called Thunder Bolt, a sequel with the same killer had been thrown together a few years later, and the two were stitched together down the road under a different title to squeeze another few bucks out of the grindhouse circuit. If you look at Death Proof as two separate flicks cut into one, then I can kinda tolerate the first half of the bill and really, really dig the second.

Death Proof opens down in Austin, Texas. Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) has rolled into town from the Big Apple, and her old pals are celebrating by dragging her around to grab some Mexican food and hit a dive bar before tearing off to a lake house for the weekend. Death Proof may be a slasher flick at heart, but the only disturbing thing Arlene really has to suffer through for a while there is her friend Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) playing a prank on her radio show, offering up a lapdance from 'Butterfly' if someone rattles off a poem to her. Arlene, Jungle Julia, and their pals are too distracted by booze, pot, and a bunch of wannabe hipster types to pay all that much attention to the fiftysomething guy wolfing down a nacho platter at the bar, but he's been keeping a close eye on them. His name's Mike McKay (Kurt Russell), but you can call him Stuntman Mike. The couple of folks who do bother to ask have never heard of any of the TV shows he worked on however many decades ago, but...hey! He does have a 'death proof' stunt car in the parking lot to prove that his story's legit: a heavily reinforced '70 Chevy Nova complete with a crash box, roll cage, and camera mount. As the liquored-up girls stumble out of the bar to that lakeside cabin, Mike hops into his Nova, revs up the engine, and splatters their little sedan all over the blacktop. 'Course, as far as the D.A. can tell, there isn't an actual crime. Hell, even the
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broken, battered corpse in what passes for a passenger seat can neatly be explained away. A country-fried Texas Ranger (Michael Parks) has his suspicions, but there's not a damned thing he can do about it. Stuntman Mike is a little worse for wear after the crash but lives to stalk again another day.

...and after a title card flashing forward a year later, that's exactly what he does. A little slice of Hollywood has set up shop in the sleepy Tennessee town of Lebanon. There's not much there: a Days Inn, a diner, and...hey, a white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 engine. To bubbly starlet Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and make-up gal Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), that doesn't mean much of anything, but to stunt-crazed gearheads Zoë Bell (playing herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms)...? That's Kowalski's car from Vanishing Point. Zoe doesn't want to step behind the wheel of this backwater mechanic's legendary muscle car, though. No, she sets out to dupe Kim into letting her play ship's mast: holding onto a couple of belts tied to the front doors while she lays on the hood of a car screaming along at eightysomething miles an hour. It's a dangerous and stupid thrill ride as it is, but when you have Stuntman Mike -- this time tooling around in a black, sharklike Dodge Charger -- plowing into you at these breakneck speeds...? 'Course, this time Mike's chasing down women who know how to handle themselves in a muscle car, and he's going to have a hell of a time blowing his load when he's on the receiving end.

I get what Tarantino is trying to do. Both halves of Death Proof stick to a kinda-sorta similar structure: introduce a half-battalion of nubile twentysomethings, toss in a couple of ominous shots of Stuntman Mike, run through forty minutes of dialogue, and then rev up the engines to some Detroit muscle. Sticking to that same framework lets Tarantino contrast how Stuntman Mike and each gaggle of girls react when they collide. The girly-girls are butchered, but the few of 'em who are savvy about thirty year old car chase flicks and can hold their own on the road against Mike manage to earn his respect...until the card table's flipped over and Death Proof shifts gears into a women's revenge movie. If I were just looking to hammer out an essay for a film class or semi-pretentious movie blog, then...yeah, that parallel would be something to explore. For someone hoping for more of the "white hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour!" splattered across the poster...? Not so much.

Robert Rodriguez' half of Grindhouse is a hell of a lot more fun, but it's an exaggerated, hypercaffeinated version of what a '70s exploitation flick ought to have been: a breakneck pace that screams ahead for almost an hour and a half straight, twenty or thirty barrel drums of splatter from a first-rate effects crew, and a maniacally depraved sense of humor. It's kind of jarring to go from that to Death Proof, even when the movie was half an hour lighter on the Grindhouse bill. In this extended version, the transition's even more uneasy. Tarantino does cut back in an awkward shot of Stuntman Mike cackling as he
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stalks the first set of girls, but other than that, you could watch the movie from its first frame to right at the 45 minute mark and have no clue that it's about to turn into a slasher flick. It's gruesome and depraved for a couple of minutes there, and then Tarantino introduces a new set of girls who sit around and gab for another fortysomething minutes.

Of course, if you want to be really authentic to the whole spirit of the grindhouse, Tarantino actually comes closer than Rodriguez does. Sure, a vintage exploitation flick would've thrown in a catfight and had at least a couple of the girls yank off their tops, and none of those low-rent distributors would've let its runtime creep past the hour and a half mark. The fact that so little actually happens -- that 75% of the movie is a bunch of young women sitting around and yakking -- is a lot like the movies Tarantino's paying homage to, though. How many grindhouse flicks actually lived up to their posters? They hammer out maybe three or four really great scenes, padding out the rest with meandering dialogue and long, long stretches of nothing. Sure, they'd toss in some steamy sex scenes or...y'know, a soldier in a tutu being devoured by zombies to keep the crowd from dozing off, but a lot of these flicks really were pretty dull. Quite a few reviewers griped about Tarantino's half of Grindhouse's double feature, saying that real grindhouse movies were never this boring, but anyone who'd say something like that hasn't sat down with all that many exploitation flicks.

The first half of Death Proof is okay. I really didn't think much of any of the girls, none of their dangling subplots really grabbed my attention -- I mean, text messages to an M.I.A. boyfriend and a Robert Frost poem? -- and since this is my sixth time through the movie in one form or another, I really just wanted to mash the 'Skip Chapter' button to get straight to the good stuff. Making this stretch of the movie even longer on DVD and Blu-ray seems like a pretty nasty miscalculation, even if Tarantino did splice back in the lapdance that'd been trimmed out of the leaner Grindhouse cut. At the same time, though, I'm a lifelong slasher fan, and that's really what Death Proof is at its core. I'm used to suffering through long, rambling scenes with boring, boring characters who I'm just waiting to be carved into tiny, bite-sized chunks by a depraved killer. Sure, I could make the argument that the first hour of Death Proof is a fucking bore because it's trying to be authentic, although I think I'd opt to have a good time rather than trudge through something genuine and dull. A real exploitation flick would've churned out some sort of slaughter before the opening credits, and at least one or two of the girls would've gotten the axe before the 45 minute mark.

The best thing about the first hour of Death Proof is Stuntman Mike. Kurt Russell makes that opening chunk of the movie what it is, hammering out a character who's kind of likeable -- a charmer who's beaming with pride of days in Hollywood left far, far in the rear view mirror -- but more than a little creepy at the same time. That setup is essential because Stuntman Mike is more of a spectre in the second half of the bill. Once the last of this second batch of girls is introduced, there's no sign of him for a full half hour: he just swoops in for the kill. Even though the second half is still too top-heavy and plows through page after page after page of nothing but dialogue, I hafta admit that I didn't mind all that much. This other group of girls is a lot more compelling. They can hold a conversation about something other than booze and
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blowjobs, and these four have :gasp!: actual personalities that are better fleshed out. The two halves of the movie are bridged by a long barrage of exposition about how Stuntman Mike slaughters these girls as some sort of sexual dysfunction. If you roll with that analogy, the kill that closes out the first hour is Mike popping after twenty seconds. The chase in the second is practically tantric by comparison -- prolonged, passionate teasing until Mike...y'know, takes it up the rear and goes flaccid. Both sides of the climactic chase clock in at fifteen minutes in total but feel even longer, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Even with as many DVDs and Blu-ray discs as I choke down for DVD Talk, I'm having a tough time thinking of the last movie I saw with a car chase that even came close to this. I mean, aside from the legendary stuff from the '60s and '70s, the most recent movie I can think of with a chase in this league would probably be John Frankenheimer's Ronin, and that was a full decade ago. The cat-and-mouse is long and intense, and there's a certain thrill that goes along with knowing these are real cars with Zoë Bell genuinely holding onto the hood of a Challenger screaming along at 80 mph. It looks and feels as real and dangerous as I'm sure it really was, and sparkling CGI churned out in a render farm in Palo Alto just wouldn't have been the same.

Death Proof is really uneven, and just about the last thing it needed is to be "extended and unrated!" Even the leaner cut in Grindhouse seemed like it could've stood to have had another reel or two yanked out. For what it's worth, a lot of additional dialogue has been cut back in, there's a long -- and, for whatever reason, black and white -- scene in a convenience store parking lot where Tarantino introduces most of the new set of girls while further indulging his foot fetish, and the lapdance tease from Grindhouse is back in full. Kind of like Peter Jackson's bloated remake of King Kong, I can't shake the feeling that there's a better, tighter movie struggling to claw its way out of all this filler. There are enough glimmers of brilliance in its first hour to keep my attention, though, and the more compelling characters and heavier emphasis on high-octane thrills in its second half are really what make Death Proof worth tracking down. This is probably my least favorite of Tarantino's movies to date, but Death Proof is buoyed well enough by its stronger moments that it still comes Recommended.

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feels like a double feature -- a slasher flick and its sequel spliced together into one movie -- and it kind of looks that way too. Going with the whole grindhouse experience where the same couple dozen prints of a flick would be schlepped around from city to city until they crumbled apart, Tarantino had the first half of Death Proof battered all to hell. The first hour or so is awfully soft and marred by splicing tape, nicks, flecks of dust, skips and stutters, heavy film grain, and washed out colors, as if someone had grabbed an armful of reels that'd made the rounds up and down the East coast and shoved them in a closet for a couple decades straight.

The second hour, on the other hand, looks almost perfect. There's virtually no wear at all. Its colors are vibrant and pack more of a wallop than they do on DVD. The image is crisper and much more detailed, and there's really never any question once the counter ticks past the hour mark that this is a high definition disc. The first half of the movie is a noticeable but modest step up over last year's standard-def release, but the difference between the DVD and this Blu-ray disc is very, very easy to appreciate once hour two rolls around.

Death Proof looks rough by design -- it's supposed to look like it's unspooling in a sticky, sleazy theater, not to show off some overpriced home theater rig -- but especially in its second half, the movie gets enough of a leg up in high-def to make it worth picking up over the DVD. Oh, and even though Planet Terror may have opened the mattes, Death Proof sticks to Grindhouse's original scope aspect ratio. The movie has been encoded with AVC on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc.

Like pretty much everything out of the Weinstein Company, Death Proof is packing a 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. It's not all that aggressive, but maybe that's the point: it sounds like one of those remixes of a mono flick that gets a kinda
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awkward boost up to full six-channel sound decades down the road. This is such a dialogue-driven movie that the sound design is rooted front and center, and the rears are mostly there just to belt out some light atmosphere: cars whizzing by while Abernathy and Lee twiddle their thumbs in a parking lot, the downpour outside the bar in Austin...that sorta thing. The vintage songs scattered throughout the first half of Death Proof convincingly sound like they're being played off an old vinyl record, and they're still backed by a pretty punchy low-end. The subwoofer really kicks in when Stuntman Mike floors it and the throaty roar of Detroit muscle rattles the room. The chases also make more effective use of the surround channels, even if it's still a good bit lighter than average.

A kinda-sorta subdued sound design seems like it suits this sort of movie, though. I mean, speckled, battered visuals paired against a hypercaffeinated soundtrack with effects zipping from one speaker to the next and two hours straight of foundation-rattling bass...? Doesn't seem to fit here as well as it does in Planet Terror. Death Proof's audio is kind of low-key, but there aren't any technical hiccups or anything with this lossless soundtrack on Blu-ray, so I'll slap on a few stars and ramble on about something else.

Traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also piled on in English, French, Italian, and Spanish. Subtitle streams in English (SDH) and Spanish round out the audio options.

Death Proof carries over all of the extras from the two-disc DVD set, and the only addition is some online functionality that hasn't been spelled out yet. They're more personality-based than anything else, anchored more around the people who made the movie than what actually went into putting it together. All of these extras are presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.
  • Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof (20 min.): Tarantino piled together as many of his favorite stuntmen (and stuntwomen) as he could for Death Proof, including legends like Buddy Joe Hooker and Terry Leonard. Their work on some of the key sequences in the movie -- a Chevy Nova flipping over again and again in a roll that would've taken weeks to nail again that perfectly, a mid-air collision, and a near-miss with a truck -- are briefly touched on. It doesn't really dig all that deep into the nuts and bolts of the actual stunts, though, and fans hoping to get more of a sense of how these crashes and collisions were pulled off will have to turn to the Grindhouse hardcover instead.

  • Introducing Zoë Bell (9 min.): A bunch of the folks on both sides of the camera gush about casting such a talented stuntwoman in her first acting role and...y'know, still having her tackle her own stunts.

  • Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike (9 min.): Tarantino kicks things off by rattling off a story about how the idea to cast Kurt Russell came during some noodling on the Planet Terror shoot. A big chunk of the rest of this featurette is a big, glittery Valentine to Kurt Russell, but some of the other notes scattered around in here include how everyone who worked in Hollywood in the '60s and '70s knew someone like Stuntman Mike and how much of his own driving Russell handled himself.

  • Finding Quentin's Gals (21 min.): This pretty great casting featurette runs through the long, long list of actresses in the movie: the sheer number of roles written with specific lasses in mind, the freewheeling choreography behind the reinstated lapdance sequence, recycling cast members from the other half of Grindhouse's double feature as a nod to the New World Pictures stable, how real-life pals Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms auditioned together, and Tarantino realizing that he'd written a more fleshed out character in Lee than he thought after Mary Elizabeth Winstead auditioned. Even though this is the 'extended and unrated!' cut of Death Proof, there's clearly still some additional footage that's collecting dust somewhere; this featurette has a shot of the gals picking Zoe up at the airport that isn't in either version of the movie.

  • The Guys of Death Proof (8 min.): Yeah, yeah, the guys in Death Proof get some face time too with their own casting featurette. Tarantino explains why he tossed in that Psycho-style exposition to bridge the two halves of the movie as well as why he opted to play Warren the bartender. Eli Roth, Omar Doom, and Michael Bacall are also featured.
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  • Quentin's Greatest Collaborator - Editor Sally Menke (5 min.): This featurette opens with some really brief comments by Tarantino about his long-time editor, but it's mostly a montage of the cast as they sneak "hi, Sally!" into a bunch of outtakes. Nah, it's not some cutting insight into the editing process or anything, but it's kinda clever and enough fun to make it worth a spin.

  • Uncut "Baby, It's You" by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2 min.): This is the full version of Lee belting out "Baby It's You" -- a song co-written by Burt Bacharach and recorded by everyone from The Beatles to Pia Zadora -- while blasting her iPod in Kim's Mustang.

  • Double Dare Trailer (3 min.): The documentary Double Dare aimed its cameras at stuntwomen Jeannie Epper and...hey! Zoë Bell a few years back, and the trailer for it is featured here. Oh, and DVD Talk has a review of that too, of course.

  • Death Proof International Trailer (2 min.)

  • International Poster Gallery: This still gallery cycles through a set of lobby cards, although there's nothing all that overtly international about 'em.

  • Extended Movie Cues: More complete versions of three cues from the movie can be played in a virtual jukebox: Ennio Morricone's "Unexpected Violence" (which we'll get a chance to hear again on Blu-ray shortly...), Guido and Maurizio De Angelis' "Gangster Story", and Franco Micalizzi's "Italia a Mano Armata".

  • BD Live: Death Proof does feature some sort of online interactivity, but nothing in the packaging spells out what it is, exactly, and The Weinstein Company hasn't flipped on the switch for it as I write this.

The Final Word
Robert Rodriguez took his grindhouse homage deliriously far over the top, but Quentin Tarantino really didn't go far enough with Death Proof. It's not as sleazy as the trailers made it out to be, he doesn't start the movie off with some sort of blood-spattered bang the way the flicks on 42nd St. did, and the meandering first half is pretty tedious to sit through. There's a hell of a seventysomething minute flick buried in here somewhere, but it's weighed down by the borderline-annoying characters scattered throughout the first 45 minutes and reams and reams of self-indulgent dialogue.

There really is a lot to like about Death Proof, though. Every scene with Stuntman Mike is brilliant, Tarantino cherrypicked an amazing soundtrack, and the devastating crash that closes out the first half of the movie is cacklingly gruesome. I may not have thought much of the first gaggle of actresses, but the second batch of girls pack so much more personality that I really felt drawn into that chunk of the movie, and it doesn't hurt that they're part of the most spectacular car chase caught on film since Ronin a full decade ago.

Grindhouse as a double feature with the trailers intact is a much, much more compelling experience than having these two movies split apart, and it's a drag that the Weinstein Company opted against churning that out on Blu-ray. Still, as flawed as Death Proof is, there's enough to like in here for me to recommend it, especially with a lossless soundtrack and high-def spit-and-polish in tow. Recommended.
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