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DEATH PROOF

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Poitier, Rose McGowan, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoë Bell
Director:  Quentin Tarantino
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Genius Products/Dimension
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2007

“Do I frighten you?  Is it my scar?”

“It’s your car.”

Film ***1/2

Quentin Tarantino is a walking lexicon of 70s cinema, and one could argue his career has been more selectively focused on that aspect of late.  His Kill Bill films had all the markings of the Asian imports and revenge pictures that flickered on the screens of that decade’s grindhouses.  With Death Proof, he delivers an A grade piece of B grade entertainment that hearkens back to the great car chase and kick-ass chick movies.  These aren’t the kind of films that everyone will ‘get’, but if you know his influences and the classic trash traditions of that era, you’ll savor them.

I’m one of those, and though I’m still disappointed over the decision by the studios to split this movie from Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and not giving us the full Grindhouse experience on DVD, I have to begrudgingly admit, it’s kind of cool to see the full uncut version of Tarantino’s vision. 

Like in Kill Bill, the picture opens with the “Our Feature Presentation” logo, plus an added 70s clip letting audiences know the film is ‘restricted’.  Then we plunge into full 70s glory, complete with rough film stock, missing frames, and a superb music soundtrack that will have you humming along.

It’s essentially a two act film.  In the first, we meet a group of girls getting their weekend started with drinks, awkwardly horny boys, and of course, Stuntman Mike, in a role Kurt Russell was both born and honed to play.  He’s a 70s throwback too, complete with long hair, a vicious scar, and a muscle car that he made “death proof”, meaning it could do terrifying stunts and crashes without killing the driver.

The dialogue is decidedly Tarantino…funny, real, and mostly outside the plot, which is a simple one, and one I don’t want to give away in much detail.  Suffice to say, the girls’ encounter with Stuntman Mike ends with a jarring exclamation point before the movie resets in a new location, with a new cast of girls, and gets ready to give it to us again. 

The new girls include stuntwomen Kim (Thoms) and Zoë (Zoë Bell, playing herself), along with make-up artist Abernathy (Dawson) and actress Lee (Winstead).  They are in Tennessee where a film is being shot, and Zoë, a New Zealand native, has an idea for fun during her stint in the States.  She wants to take a 1970 Dodge Challenger for a little spin, but not just any Sunday drive…a thrill ride that has to be seen to be believed.  But their fun is challenged when Stuntman Mike shows up and prepares to take them for a ride they’ll never forget.  The longer version on this disc includes a creepy scene where Stuntman Mike has his first…er, brush with Abernathy that sets up the rest of the movie nicely.

The climax is a great throwback to 70s car chases, and will make you think of Bullitt, The French Connection and Vanishing Point, which is openly and generously referenced by the girls.  It might be the year’s most thrilling sequences, and will have you knotted in suspense while blown away by the sheer chutzpah of the action.  And Zoë Bell, a real life stuntwoman, does all her own dangerous stunts, making the scene even more realistic and nail-biting.  She pulls it off like the pro she is.

Bell actually met Tarantino when he hired her to be Uma Thurman’s double in the Kill Bill films, but it was a stroke of typical genius for him to write her into his script as herself even though she’d never really acted before.  She proves a capable and captivating screen presence, and I hope we see much more of her in front of the camera as well as behind it.

This is not high art, except in the sense that it strives for and achieves a real 70s vibe that no enthusiast could quibble with.  Apart from cell phones and iPods, you’d likely never guess that this wasn’t a thirty year old flick.  Tarantino does more than pay homage or imitate the movies that inspired him…he channels them with an authenticity and devotion that is possibly only matched by his frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez or even Rob Zombie.

Therein lies the rub, I suppose.  If you don’t know where a movie like this springs from, or do but aren’t a fan of them, you may still be entertained by the over-the-top quality of Tarantino’s offering, but you may just as well be put off by it.  For me, it was a genuine thrill to see the kind of picture that was a childhood staple so vividly brought to life with love and appreciation by one of our generation’s most gifted filmmakers.  Death Proof is a sexy, sleazy, exciting, bad-ass muther of a movie.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  In Grindhouse, the scene where Butterfly (Ferlito) gives Stuntman Mike a lap dance was a “missing reel”, but it’s intact here.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  Director Eli Roth plays one of the unlucky-in-love boyfriends, and he also directed one of the fake Grindhouse trailers that is sadly not to be found here.

Video ***1/2

This is a tough one to call, considering the movie was intentionally made to look like a grainy, worn print from the 70s.  It succeeds, but how does one look through that to judge the quality of the transfer?  Very carefully, I suppose.  The anamorphic presentation does a good job at making the film look stylistically “bad”, though for most of the final stretch, Tarantino seems to have had enough or he wanted to let his action play out without distraction, and you can tell the colors are vivid and the images are sharp and clear.

Audio ***1/2

Similarly, the 5.1 audio is mostly used to make the movie sound more dated than it actually is.  The music, which is always important in a Tarantino film, gets the biggest boost…classic tunes from the 70s will rock you back in your seat.  But that isn’t the only surprise up his sleeve.  The final sequence is loud, dynamic, and comes at you from all sides.

Features **1/2

Despite being a double disc, this DVD could have been a little more souped up in the extras department.  The first disc has the trailers and a poster gallery.  The second has six short featurettes on the stuntmen, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, the girls, the guys, and editor Sally Menke, plus a trailer for Double Dare, a documentary that gave the world their first real look at Zoë Bell.

Summary:

This DVD proves that Death Proof can stand alone, but I’m still hoping the studios will give Grindhouse fans a break and release the full version with Planet Terror and the false trailers that so thrilled us on the big screen.

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