Posted on April 10, 2007 by Flames
I can’t begin this review without first admitting that Grindhouse is difficult to approach with a critical eye. Much like the wonderfully grimy sleaze-fests this film represents, there’s much more to seeing this movie in a crowded theatre than just the movie itself. I believe that for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, that’s the plan.
I can’t remember the last time I was as entertained by the audience’s reaction to a movie as I was the movie itself. People laughed hysterically, burst out in fits of applause, and “ewe-ed” and “ah-ed” their ways through all 3 hours and 11 minutes of Grindhouse. The movie-going experience for me was outstanding, more so than the movie itself. Here’s the thing, though: The movie is pretty darn good too, which makes writing this review a bit less of a daunting task than it could’ve been. And for that I say, “Thanks, Robert. Thanks, Quentin.”
Grindhouse portrays the experience of seeing a 1970’s grind house style double feature – those movies that are usually referred to as, well, “those movies.” Robert Rodriguez’s segment, Planet Terror, tells the story of Cherry (Rose McGowan) the go-go dancer and Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) the gunslinger outlaw. They share a past that they would both like to escape, but when a contagious plague infects the population turning people into cannibalistic freaks, Cherry and Wray are reunited in the process. Planet Terror is gore soaked and action packed, as it captures the sort of style best popularized by films such as Day of the Dead and The Thing. Quentin Tarantino’s segment, Death Proof, tells the story of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a homicidal and washed up stuntman who kills women with his ominous black muscle car. When he decides to victimize a group of young ladies (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell), two of whom happen to be stuntwomen test driving a Dodge Challenger, the tables turn. Death Proof is both sexy and violent as it borrows elements from several movies including Bullitt and The Car (1977), and infuses it all with some seriously ass-kicking femininity.
The faux trailers, which precede each feature segment, are directed by fellow grind house enthusiasts, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth, as well as Robert Rodriguez. The trailers are among the highlights of the entire film. They are so spot-on in capturing the essence of the real thing as well as being so offensive and over the top that they elicit belly laughs in a way that even conventional comedy cannot. And I’ll be the first to admit that if Rodriguez’s trailer for Machete represented an actual movie, I’d be the first in line for a ticket.
Aside from the leads, the cast is stacked with Rodriguez and Tarantino regulars as well cameo appearances by an impressive list of actors and entertainers. The long list includes Bruce Willis, Tom Savini, Bill Mosley, Nicolas Cage, Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson, Naveen Andrews, Danny Trejo, and many others. The acting in both segments is impressive, especially in the over-the-top Planet Terror which requires the talented cast to purposefully overact and spruce up the delivery of lines with extra helpings of cheese. The set up for Tarantino’s dialogue-driven Death Proof is full of his signature snappy verbal sparring matches which require the cast to make scenes play that are essentially subtext-laden conversations over breakfast about nonsense, reminiscent of the opening sequence in Reservoir Dogs.
However, the climax of Death Proof leaves the dialogue dead on the side of the road and goes for the jugular with the type action that can potentially shorten your life by at least a few minutes, delivered to us via more great acting and stunt work.
Grindhouse is not for the squeamish. Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group has utilized nearly every trick in the book, with a heavy emphasis on physical effects. The splatter is over the top, and several effects are just plain gross which was received gleefully by many, including me. This is especially true for Planet Terror, but there are scenes in Death Proof that will not disappoint folks looking to test their gag reflexes. Disembodied testicles, bloody pus projectiles, eaten entrails, bodies ripped apart, disintegrating flesh, exploding heads, you name it, it’s in the movie.
The Grindhouse soundtrack has a do-it-yourself John Carpenter vibe, similar in style to Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing. In fact, Rodriguez composed some of the music. Planet Terror employs a basic synth-heavy retro-future motif, whereas Death Proof relies more on a tasty sprinkling of obscure tunes that fit the scenes very well and are typical of what we’ve come to expect from both Rodriguez and Tarantino in this department.
Grindhouse is essentially an example of cinematic metafiction. There’s a layer of artifice that exists outside the narratives of the two movies-within-a-movie. Several elements comprise this metalayer of fiction which include faux trailers, theatre spots identifying the feature presentations, management spots apologizing for missing reels, the illusion that the film itself is scratched and faded, and even the concept that we’re not seeing a single movie, but rather we’re watching an authentic sleazy double feature. This results in a blurring effect and occasionally a complete transcendence of the boundaries between narrative layers and the larger boundary between the film and reality. By making it difficult to discern between cinematic artifice and the truth, Grindhouse creates an almost interactive experience for the audience. This experience doesn’t affect how successful the movie is based on conventional aesthetic criteria, but it does make going to a theatre with friends to see it a whole lot of fun.
When critiqued as a whole, some of the same elements that make Grindhouse a very unique and mostly enjoyable moving-going experience also detract from it as a stand alone film. By using conventions that imitate the experience of a grind house double feature – missing reels, two unrelated and tonally different “movies” within the real movie, etc., Grindhouse lacks a unifying narrative theme and cohesiveness. These same elements also make the movie a bit too long for maximum impact.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of shelf life Grindhouse will have. I will almost certainly watch it again, but will it seem as successful and entertaining as it did in the theatre when I watch it alone in my living room? Probably not and that’s the problem. My time at the theatre watching Grindhouse was exceptional, but when judged by the same criteria as other films, Grindhouse is merely good. However, that’s quite a feat and for the experience I had this weekend at the theatre I’d like to say once again, “Thanks, Robert. Thanks Quentin.”
Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Jason Thorson
Also available: Grindhouse Presents, Death Proof – Extended and Unrated