Tarantino's "Death Proof" Remains A Satisfying Homage
By 2007, directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino established themselves as innovative filmmakers with an eye for action, dialogue and a fresh take on independent filmmaking. Longtime friends and collaborators, the two created a double feature homage to the Grindhouse films of the 1970s with “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof.” Both directors were not shy about integrating others’ techniques into their own, but they used their love of vintage B-movies to entice modern day audiences in an ambitious effort. Unfortunately, the “Grindhouse” double feature couldn’t attract enough attention, grossing only $50 million at the domestic box office despite strong reviews. However, for long time fans of Tarantino’s work, “Death Proof” still holds up as a solid tribute to a lost genre.
In Austin, Texas, three friends, Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and DJ “Jungle Julia” (Sydney Poitier) are bar-hopping for Julia’s birthday. All the while, a mysterious man is stalking these girls in his 1971 Chevy Nova stunt car. Over the course of the first half of the film, the audience is engaged in this group of girls in what would be a typical night for them. Much like the teen slasher genre of the 70s and 80s, careless young adults get drunk, smoke weed and thus get killed. But it’s Tarantino’s inventive dialogue that makes these characters more absorbing.
Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is charming and cunning. He is both upfront yet mysterious. In the first half of the film, he gains the girls’ trust but turns sinister once he is behind the wheel of his death proof stunt car. He first offers bar patron Pam (Rose McGowan) a ride home in the un-restrained passenger seat of his car. When he reveals his intention was not to drive her home, Mike begins the torturous ride that ultimately kills Pam.
“Hey Pam, remember when I said this car was ‘death proof?’ Well that wasn’t a lie. This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat.”
Breaks slam. Pam is bloodied up and dying. Russell’s “Stuntman Mike” has now grabbed your attention.
Later that night, Mike races his car down the darkened street with his headlights off. As he approaches the other girls’ car coming in the opposite direction, he flips the lights on and tears into their car like butter. The ladies are gruesomely killed while Stuntman Mike flips his car and escapes with minor injuries. Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks, reprising the same role from Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “Death Proof’s” Grindhouse companion “Planet Terror”) suspects Mike on intentionally killing them but has little evidence, considering Mike had his lights on while the girls had weed and alcohol in their system. The killer is set free.
Fourteen months later, Stuntman Mike is now stalking a new group of women in Lebanon, Tennessee. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are all working on a movie on location while their friend from New Zealand (stuntwoman Zoë Bell playing herself, who performed as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) visits and the four take a road trip. Picking up a 1970 white Dodge Challenger (made famous in the film “Vanishing Point”) for a test drive alone from a local seller, the girls set off while leaving Kim behind as collateral. Their true motive however is to take the car for a spin while Zoë and Kim play “ship’s mast,” whereby Zoë rides the hood strapping her arms to the sides of the car with leather belts while Kim drives at high speed.
Sporting a new 1969 Dodge Charger, Stuntman Mikes sets his eyes on his new prey. He spoils the women’s fun when he rams their car while Zoë is trapped on the hood. What follows is a terrific sequence of high speed adrenaline, where Bell’s death-defying stunts leaves you in awe. Once the girls are able to hold their own, the tables have turned and Stuntman Mike realizes he is up against a couple of bad asses. The revenge sequence only leaves you with a smile on your face as you see Stuntman Mike get his much-deserved comeuppance. What makes this second half more satisfying is not only is the action more exciting, but the female protagonists are more likable. The conversational dialogue remains smart and engaging, but it’s the action that makes it more compelling.
During the development of the film, Tarantino couldn’t quite pinpoint the genre he wanted to honor. While considering a straight-up slasher film, he had the idea of a “death proof” car. Yet, he wanted the theme of female revenge while tapping into the “women in prison” b-movie motif. He also wanted to feature vintage American cars as the centerpiece of the action. He ultimately combined all of these elements into an exciting tribute to a lost art of American film. To give it that authentic feel, the film reel is intentionally damaged with quick edit jumps in shots to make appear more like 1970s exploitation flicks. And to top it all off, he specifically wrote the role of Stuntman Mike for Russell. As Tarantino explained in interviews, he longed for a time when Russell played cinematic bad asses like Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York” but felt betrayed when Russell had starred in recent family fare like “Sky High” and “Miracle.”
I tend to consider this an “unofficial” directorial piece by Tarantino. He wrote and directed this movie to be paired with another film and thus less time and money was used to produce it. If anything, it’s seen as side-project in between more expansive projects like “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds.” Nonetheless, it’s still a very entertaining, suspenseful tale of revenge that lives up to Tarantino’s talent.