"Four stars (R)
Since I’m writing this after the opening weekend of Grindhouse, instead of addressing the hard-core Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fans, who surely have already seen the production, I’ll aim my words at those of you that opted not to go.
First, a look at the basic concept, since it seems to have caused some confusion. Filmmakers Tarantino (Kill Bill) and Rodriguez (Sin City) fondly remembered going to seedy theaters back in the ’70s and watching various schlocky movies: biker flicks, women in prison, creature features, cut-rate sci-fi — hastily assembled low-budget fare. The prints were usually old and scratched, and sometimes reels were missing, but more often than not, there were enough luridly satisfying moments to make up for the boring stretches.
Grindhouse is their homage to those days, a double feature with phony previews and everything, complete with scratches, pops and even missing reels. Rodriguez contributes the first feature, an overstuffed gross-out quasi-zombie opus called Planet Terror, while Tarantino closes the show with a conversation-heavy dueling cars movie named Death Proof.
Including the phony coming attractions by other directors before and between the films, Grindhouse runs a little over three hours, but honest to God, though I fidgeted a little during the chat sessions in Death Proof, the time flew by.
So which movie is best? Quentin Tarantino’s. Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is nasty fun, but he tries way too hard. The goo-fest is crammed with characters, subplots and nods to other movies. I won’t even try to explain the story. Suffice to say people are turning into really disgusting-looking maniacs at an alarming rate. Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Michael Parks and Jeff Fahey are the key players, with Naveen Andrews from Lost and Bruce Willis making cameo appearances, but the performer you’ll remember the most is Rose McGowen, playing a surly go-go dancer who loses a leg and ends up battling the monsters with a machine gun attached to the stump. Yikes.
Despite the high concept, Tarantino’s Death Proof is basically a regular Tarantino movie, which means lots of chatter, hipster attitude and pop culture references coupled with great music and big action. Be prepared for two extended conversations with two sets of young women, some of it entertaining, some of it tedious. Rose McGowan, now blonde, turns up again, along with Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd and, later, Rosario Dawson, real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Whew. Most of them end up dealing with Stuntman Mike (an excellent Kurt Russell), a nutcase who uses his souped-up car to kill.
It all builds up to a major car chase/battle that pays off spectacularly because Tarantino lays the groundwork so well. We become invested in the characters, even the ones we don’t like, which gives weight to the duel on wheels.
Bottom line: Grindhouse is worth the trouble. The gimmick works, the good parts in Planet Terror outweigh the messiness, the phony trailers are amusing and Death Proof, though too talky even for Tarantino, is a doozy.