Now released in an expanded stand-alone version after the US flop of the ‘Grindhouse’ double bill (which also comprised Robert Rodriguez’ forthcoming Planet Terror), Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s latest tongue-in-cheek homage to genre cinema. After heist movies, blaxploitation and martial arts actioners, now it’s the turn of the 70s exploitation flick to get the Tarantino treatment.
While the Asian-inspired Kill Bill was let down by misplaced ambition and a dismally dull second part, with Death Proof Tarantino is comfortably back on home ground. A cross between a car chase B-movie and a slasher shocker, the film stars the great Kurt Russell (in even more rugged form than in his Snake Plissken incarnation) as the psychopathic Stuntman Mike, who drives around in his sinister car of death in search of female victims. Cue feisty girl gangs, wiseass one-liners, wiggling hot pants, screeching hot rods and mucho unwholesome violence.
With his customary fetishistic attention to detail, Tarantino lovingly reproduces the rough-around-the-edges feel and general shoddiness of low-budget exploitation fare, down to the scratches, jump cuts and incompetent editing. The wonderfully grainy, sleazy texture of seventies cinema is perfectly recreated, making Death Proof a visual treat in this era of bland technologically-enhanced perfection. Even the women’s skin appears authentically 70s, with that look of real flesh that seems so provocatively sensual in contrast with the plastic feel of airbrushed bodies. While the film looks great, the plot, split into two repetitive parts, is surprisingly clunky and on the thin side. Of course, Tarantino could claim he was simply emulating his 70s models but this is one aspect of the film that actually feels unintentionally sloppy.
As usual, Tarantino’s fetishism means that he reduces the films he draws on to a collection of shiny pop culture artefacts entirely emptied of their original meaning. Death Proof feels like a best-of the genre, meticulously compiled by a geeky film buff stuck in eternal teenagedom. So while Vanishing Point is Death Proof‘s major reference point, all that Tarantino takes from that film is the car – the 1970 white Dodge Challenger, which two hard-ass stunt girls obsess over so much that it becomes a central part of the plot – leaving out the moody desperation and lonely landscapes that made the original something more than just another car chase movie.
However, Tarantino’s revisionist take on the crude sexual politics of the Grindhouse nicely brings the genre into the twenty-first century and makes it fun for the girls too. After the predictable maiming and murdering of some scantily-clad hot chicks, Russell’s unreconstructed macho psycho gets his come-uppance big time when he picks the wrong gals to mess with. The kind of girl who straps herself to the hood of a speeding Dodge for kicks, gutsy ZoíÂ« (played by real-life stuntwoman ZoíÂ« Bell, who was Uma Thurman’s body double in Kill Bill) is more than a match for Stuntman Mike and the film climaxes on an exhilarating, triumphantly old-school (no cheating with CGI here) high-speed car chase. While the sassy girl talk is no more than a collection of sub-Sex and the City clichés, the girl-power action is a blast.
Death Proof is yet another variation on Tarantino’s trademark pop cannibalism. His delirious enthusiasm for cult cinema is infectious – and almost endearing – and while the films he references so lavishly will always be superior to his own, Death Proof is a fun ride through cinema’s louche past.
Unlike Virginie Sélavy, Ben Cobb found absolutely nothing to enjoy in Death Proof. Read his review here and take sides!