"It's better than safe. It's death proof." – Stuntman Mike
I could be in the minority, but right from the start I've always thought Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez' joint venture "Grindhouse" was an underappreciated notion of brilliance. Their collaboration fused their own modern styles with inspiration driven from the exploitation films of the seventies and the monster B-movies of the early eighties to create a motion picture event well ahead of its time.
I say this because a few critics initially panned the production as they couldn't wrap their heads around the concept of these B-movie throwbacks, and moviegoers were either turned off by the cheesy-looking trailers or couldn't make the time in their busy schedules to sit through two back-to-back movies at the theater. And so in North America at least, "Grindhouse" ultimately bombed at the box office.
To try and amend the failure, "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" were surgically separated from each other for overseas distribution as well as on home video. I'm not sure how well the films did on their own in other countries, but from what I've read, after the split on DVD the general consensus agreed that both movies truly belong together. Practically every review I've come across says the same thing, so you can imagine how I was a bit surprised—not to mention annoyed—when I learned Genius Products didn't listen to the pleas of the public and repeated the same dumb move on Blu-ray. And as if that wasn't bad enough, to add salt in the wounds the phony movie trailers that were such an integral part of the "Grindhouse" experience are still nowhere to be found! Talk about a slap in the face.
Anyway, this review is for the Blu-ray of Quentin Tarantino's contribution "Death Proof," which actually plays out almost like two movies in one. The first half of the film takes place in Austin, Texas where a foxy radio DJ named Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is celebrating her birthday. On this fateful day, she decides to go out partying with her friends "Butterfly" (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd). One of their stops is Güero's Taco Bar, and they spend the evening drinking, smoking weed, and casually grinding away to atrocious seventies-style music.
After spending a fair amount of time flaunting their feet, legs, and other "assets" to the male patrons at the tavern and the viewers at home, the girls eventually meet an odd man who introduces himself only as "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell). Stuntman Mike has a massive scar on his face and radiates creepy vibes, yet somehow he's still surrounded by a peculiar aura of charm. He befriends a young lady named Pam (Rose McGowan) and even manages to score a pretty intense lap dance from Butterfly (which was cut from the theatrical version).
What none of the girls realize, though, is that Stuntman Mike is really a vicious serial killer. First he stalks his prey and gains their trust, then gets his sick jollies by terrorizing and murdering his victims with a unique weapon of choice—his menacing black 1970 Chevy Nova. Unfortunately, the women would have much better chance at survival if they were built to last like his machine—specially modified to be virtually "death proof."
While the first half is an uncanny tribute to seventies B-movies, it is slow going--even for men ogling the babes in tight tee shirts and short shorts. Hardly anything of note actually happens until Stuntman Mike shows up, and the rest of the time there really isn't much else going on at all. By the time we shift into second gear in the next chapter, though, we enter a realm more in tune with vintage Tarantino.
Over a year later in Lebanon, Tennessee, another group of young ladies--Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—pick up their friend Zoë Bell (starring as herself) visiting from New Zealand for a few days. As the girls chat over a meal and land on the subject of muscle cars, Zoë reveals that one of her dreams has always been to drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 engine--exactly like the one in the film, "Vanishing Point." Her eyes light up even more as she tells her friends that she came across one for sale nearby in the online classifieds prior to her trip. With a little bit of prodding, Zoë talks the others into going down and taking a look at the Challenger so she can take a test drive and fulfill her lifelong fantasy.
However, it isn't long before Kim uncovers that Zoë has alternate plans. What Zoë secretly wants to do with the Challenger is use it to perform a death-defying stunt called "Ship's Mast." This takes even more convincing, but soon Zoë, Kim, and Abby are on the road test driving the classic set of wheels--leaving poor Lee behind as collateral.
Meanwhile, now behind the wheel of a 1969 Dodge Charger, Stuntman Mike reenters the picture and has chosen a new set of targets for his sadistic killing spree. Only this time, he sets his sights on the wrong group of women—and when they decide to fight back, the hunter ends up being the one being hunted…
Besides being the final half of "Grindhouse," Tarantino had a secondary motive for "Death Proof." He used the film as a vehicle (pun intended) to build around his favorite stunt woman--Zoë Bell. The New Zealand native had been Lucy Lawless' stunt double on "Xena: Warrior Princess" and had worked on other projects, but it wasn't until Tarantino saw the trailer for the documentary "Double Dare" that he became infatuated with her and brought her aboard to be Uma's double in "Kill Bill." He was so impressed that he decided to write a movie specifically for her. Bell does all of her own stunts in "Death Proof" and is easily one of the highlights of the film.
This of course leads us to the roaring climax, which is one of the most thrilling car chases ever caught on film. There's no CGI or camera tricks here, just real cars traveling at relentless speeds for a good twenty minutes or so. I don't know if I'd say that this sequence put the film entirely back on the rails, but it definitely helped steer it in the right direction.
On the downside, I've always felt Tarantino is a gifted writer and some of the most memorable cinematic lines come from his films. However, while some of the conversations between the females were intriguing, there were other times where the jibber-jabber got to be a little irritating. To be fair, I suppose an argument can be made that this was done on purpose to capture the essence of seventies exploitation, but it was almost too realistic. I think if he had trimmed the dialogue down a little and maybe included another victim in its place, we would have had the same effect and a film that flowed along more smoother.
The music is another weaker element. While I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtracks for "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and both "Kill Bill" volumes, in this one the tunes all sounded the same to me. Again, he could have intentionally selected this collection of forgotten seventies beats as a nod to the genre, I just thought it was a bit overdone.
When it all boils down, I still like "Death Proof," it's just that on its lonesome and in the extended form (which over twenty minutes have been added by the way) it loses some of the magic it had when it was part of "Grindhouse." There's more frivolous chitchat, more musical cues, and it feels like the few parts that dragged before drag even longer now. I still appreciate the style and attention to detail, I just think it isn't as fun and as cohesive as "Planet Terror."
"Death Proof" prowls onto Blu-ray on a dual-layer BD-50 (MPEG-4/AVC codec) and is presented in its original theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Unlike "Planet Terror" which was digitally manipulated to appear like an old degraded film, the celluloid for "Death Proof" was actually physically roughed up to get the worn out look.
The first half of the movie is intentionally plagued by dirt, flecks, scratches, skips, and other imperfections, but the finished product isn't as battered and broken as "Planet Terror." For the latter half, though, the transfer cleans up significantly at the onset of a brief black-and-white interlude and is free of most debris from that point onward. Colors are vibrant, especially the hot pink and bright yellow outfits, and black levels are impressive even during the first half. Detail is also nicely done, although there is an overall softness to the entire film. Even with the intended dilapidated first chapter, "Death Proof" looks solid on Blu-ray.
Genius Products offers "Death Proof" with a lossless English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 that is center channel heavy for much of the film. Dialogue is slightly obscured and quieter than the rest of the movie, but this could be Tarantino's intent to make the audio sound a little bit older. When the music kicks in or engines start roaring, it's quite jarring and loaded with heavy bass, plus there are decent surround effects such as the pouring rain outside the bar. I didn't think the audio was as robust as "Planet Terror," but it still was decent for what it was supposed to be.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The Blu-ray of "Death Proof" just comes with the same assortment of bonus features found on the previously released DVD.
Starting things off is Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof (20:39) that takes a detailed look at the car stunts and the drivers behind the wheels. If you like cars, you'll love this featurette.
Next comes a quartet of featurettes highlighting the cast: Finding Quentin's Gals (21:13), The Guys of Death Proof (8:14), Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike (9:32), and Introducing Zoë Bell (8:57).
Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke (4:36) is basically just a short clip of Tarantino giving props to the editor he uses for all of his films.
The bonus supplements conclude with The Uncut Version of Baby It's You (1:46) performed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Double Dare Trailer (2:34), Death Proof International Trailer (2:20), an International Poster Gallery showing a variety of "Death Proof" movie posters, and a three-tune juke box under Extended Music Cues.
The Blu-ray is also labeled as BD-Live enabled, but just like "Planet Terror," this feature hasn't been activated yet.
The Final Cut:
"Death Proof" isn't one of Tarantino's strongest films, but it does what it was meant to by uncannily replicating the seventies exploitation genre and evolving into something fresh and modern. The Blu-ray has improved video and audio, however it does feel kind of like ordering a banana split and just getting a cold banana. You can't serve a dessert like this without some ice cream ("Planet Terror") or chocolate sauce and a cherry (the phony movie trailers). Here's hoping Genius Products puts out a "Grindhouse" Ultimate Collector's Edition sometime in the near future with the complete "Grindhouse" experience--and give the cult classic the justice it deserves.