Death Proof (2007)
Originally released as one half of the cinematic double-feature experience Grindhouse, Death Proof stands alone both in the European theatrical release and now on commercial DVD. This version, with the 'missing reel' and extra footage added, is a full 24 minutes longer than the version featured originally. It is now a fleshed out, fully independent film that gains a lot from its separation, yet suffers as well.
Death Proof is the tale of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a psycho killer with a serious problem with beautiful women. In the first half of the film, he stalks an Austin, Texas DJ and her small entourage of buxom beauties. A lot of chatter, a lapdance, and a rather random instance of Kurt Russell's John Wayne impression later, Mike drives his death-proofed stunt car straight into these women's vehicle to gruesomely slaughter them all. We move into the second half with a new set of victims, a group of friends who all work in the movie industry. A series of chatter on sexual fetishes, car chase movies, and stuntwoman Zoe Bell's indestructibility ensues. The action finally erupts into a vicious car chase between these film workers and Stuntman Mike.
The biggest difficulty in Death Proof is the pacing. Tarantino's normal style involves lots of sequences of just characters talking, but he really overindulges himself here. While we begin with a lovely opening credits sequence, with a lovely dashboard perspective shot from a speeding car set to the thumping rhythm of Jack Nitzsche's 'The Last Race', the pace just bottoms out once we begin our time with Jungle Julia and her friends. It's as if Mr. Tarantino seriously believes that women in short-shorts talking about weed can carry a film through its first act. It just doesn't work. We get little glimmers of a plot, with glimpses of the menacing black car accompanied by ominous music, but otherwise the first act is merely pretty girls talking until we're finally introduced to Stuntman Mike in the flesh. Mike's presence brings the only true conflict to the piece, and the film becomes much more compelling when he's involved. The instant he drops out for the second act, things are bogged down yet again in relentless conversation, though the subjects are now somewhat more interesting. Finally, when Mike revs into frame again, the last half hour of the film flies past, an edge-of-your-seat action sequence that grips you completely. But it takes so long to get there, it almost feels as not enough of a reward for slogging through the earlier parts of the film.
This pacing problem is only exacerbated by this extended cut on DVD. More and more talking is inserted, spacing out the parts that really work. While a few sequences are inserted that do capture the audience attention, such as Butterfly's lap dance, for the most part it is just yet more talking that could have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. There is, however, a contextual benefit from now being its own separate film. Without the blisteringly paced Planet Terror preceding it, Death Proof no longer seems as painfully slow while on its own.
When it comes to the performances, Kurt Russell livens the screen in a way beyond simple eye candy. The first sight of his character of Stuntman Mike is a grotesque close-up, greasy fingers and lips devouring a plate of nachos. This is the first step in the only true character development of the entire film. Mike's stories of his olden glory days, the dated nature of his hairstyle and jacket, all of these elements combine to show just how out of his time Mike seems. Mike is a lumbering T-Rex, awkward and unwelcome in his surroundings, evoking fear and trepidation from women such as Vanessa Ferlito's 'Butterfly'. This fear fuels him, until like the T-Rex, he goes for blood and kills those that fear him. It's obviously a sexual thing, some sort of sick 'they won't touch me so I'll ram them into oblivion with my big muscle car' situation. It's not terribly original, but it's compelling. While the rest of the cast is comprised of caricatures and cardboard cutouts, Stuntman Mike has some real meaty depth to him.
The real test of a film like Death Proof is if, at the end, you've enjoyed the ride. It's a matter of personal taste, whether you can weather a seemingly endless stream of Tarantino's indulgent dialog for a great chase finale. This humble reviewer thinks the final ride is worth the wait.