Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/10/07 17:23:17

"Your feature presentation: two movies made entirely of awesome."
5 stars (Awesome)

It is the new question among movie geeks, the Beatles-vs.-Stones litmus test for the trash-loving cineaste: which “Grindhouse” movie is better? “Planet Terror” offers balls-to-the-wall action, what with all the gunplay, ’splosions, bloodshed, gross-out violence, and nonstop zombie chaos. “Death Proof” delivers long stretches of dialogue, punctuated with two intense action set pieces, the second of which belongs in the car chase hall of fame. So which one are you, a “Planet Terror” fanatic or a “Death Proof” lover?

At this point I probably do not need to mention that “Grindhouse” is the bold movie experiment from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, in which each provided one 80 minute action flick (“Planet Terror” and “Death Proof,” respectively) that was then doubled up and packaged with a handful of fake trailers (courtesy Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth) in an effort to recreate the double-feature experience of sleazy inner city grind house theaters and gritty rural drive-ins of the 1970s. To further enhance the replica, the films were scratched and worn, and the features are shown here with one reel missing apiece (an idea which both filmmakers use as brilliant punchlines).

The idea makes perfect sense. Tarantino has made a career out of stuffing his movies with winking, not-so-subtle references to the grade-Z cinema that inspired him, while Rodriguez has become arguably the most experimental popular filmmaker of our generation, cranking out CG-heavy flights of fancy out of his own self-built, in-home studio. And now here they are, essentially ripping off the entire idea behind “Movie Movie,” only instead of Hollywood classics, the target is cheapjack sleaze.

Not that anyone would mistake these for authentic 70s-era sci-fi/horror exploitation. Knowing the larger budgets would give their films a sheen that no amount of slapped-on film grain could remove (the stunts alone are far beyond the reach of any bottom-rung production company), the (wise) decision was made to turn these films into eruptions of anachronism: cell phones and handheld video games wedge right up against AM radio and classic muscle cars. “Grindhouse” is more of a duplication of the spirit of the genre, not an exercise in authenticity. (That said, one wonders what movies these two could have produced had they limited themselves to vintage film stock and retro production values.)

But back to the question at hand: which one is better? Let’s start with “Planet Terror,” whose manic, gore-soaked action crosses easily into the realm of parody. Rodriguez is primed to deliver thrills of every kind as he effortlessly blends deadly serious zombie thrills with delicious tongue-in-cheek delivery; it’s a film that knows it’s being completely ridiculous and celebrates that insanity. It’s a whoop-and-holler extravaganza along the lines of the much maligned “Snakes on a Plane” - a whiz-bang entertainment where the screams and the laughs swirl around into one loud unified reaction. The whole movie is one long shout of “Isn’t this freaking cool?!”

The story, such as it is, involves a toxic cloud that turns the unlucky inhabitants of a small Texas town into disintegrating zombies. For such a tale, Rodriguez crams his story with a surprisingly large cast, each of them with plenty of detailed backstory, each of them crissing and crossing and crisscrossing again within the airtight running time. There’s the sinister doctor (Josh Brolin) and his unfaithful wife (Marley Shelton); the greasy chili parlor owner (Jeff Fahey) and his brother, the corrupt sheriff (Michael Biehn); the scientist/black market scoundrel (Naveen Andrews) and the villainous soldier (Bruce Willis); and most importantly, go-go dancer Cheery Darling (Rose McGowan) and her former flame, mechanic and man of mystery Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). For a movie this short to balance so many characters, situations, and ideas so well, it needs a screenplay far smarter than the subject matter seems to deserve. Rodriguez delivers.

By now you have seen the picture of Cherry Darling, who in the course of the tale loses her leg and is given a new one in the form of a machine gun; the image was the key point of the advertising campaign and will undoubtedly become the most iconic part of the entire project. It is certainly the most audacious idea in a movie riddled with them, and while it goes far beyond what any grindhouse picture of the 1970s could possibly produce (the effect is done here entirely with computers), it hits at the very heart of grindhouse cinema: it combines sex and violence in one crisp, concise package.

But more than anything that deep, the image shouts the loudest the movie’s mantra: “Yes, this is freaking cool!” It’s Rose McGowan at her naughtiest, shooting down zombies and soldiers with her gun-leg, while Freddy Rodriguez does acrobatic dives across the screen, while shit blows up all the time. “Planet Terror” is one never-ending gross-out blow-up freak-out. It knows how awesome it is, and it laughs at how awesome it is, and it kicks its feet up and nudges us and throws popcorn at the screen.

After a few fake previews (Wright’s is genius, Roth’s is fun, and Zombie’s is, aside from one overplayed joke, completely forgettable) and the obligatory ad for the tex-mex restaurant down the street (true to those “visit our concession stand” reels from the drive-in days, the food here looks creepier than anything the zombies can muster), we begin with our B feature: “Death Proof.”

The first thing we notice is that while “Planet Terror” looks and sounds more like a grindhouse flick, with its scratched-to-hell print, the expected film-melts-in-the-projector gag, and Rodriguez’ own homegrown synthesizer-fueled musical score, “Death Proof” feels more like a grindhouse flick. Sure, Tarantino replicates the experience as well (re-release title cards and poorly managed reel changes in place of Rodriguez’ ever-present film damage), but the main joke is that “Death Proof,” like so many before it, is a movie where (seemingly) too little happens for most of the running time, but the patient will be rewarded with a couple of kickass action scenes. After all, in the minds of a tightwad movie producer, car crashes cost money, words don’t.

The film is so eager to capture the spirit of such muscle car B-classics as “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” that the screenplay comes right out and name checks them, early and often, even joking that the 1974 “Gone in 60 Seconds” is “the real one.” (The entire second half of the plot, in fact, involves the characters’ obsession with “The Vanishing Point Car.”)

Kurt Russell, the coolest white man alive, stars as Stuntman Mike, whose black Chevy Nova is decorated with skull and crossbones on the hood, perhaps to match the long scar that runs across Mike’s face. At an Austin bar where Tarantino-approved oldies play on the jukebox, he happens upon The Girls and their birthday celebrations for Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito). He talks to them. They talk to him. They talk amongst themselves. And so on. Something is clearly not right with Stuntman Mike, whose aura growls as monstrously as his engine, but the film takes its time explaining what it is.

We are granted a quick, dirty nailbiter sequence involving Mike’s car and his devious plans, and then the movie returns to more girls, more talking. Key among them is Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman who doubled for Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” series and now plays herself, a stuntwoman aching to borrow a 1970 Dodge Challenger in order to partake in a bit of daredevil madness. What follows is an overstuffed car chase that ranks among the very best ever put on film, with stuntwork so mind-boggling that it’s bound to make Zoe Bell a household names (at least in houses where the movie geeks live) and with a sense of humor so sly that Russell’s delicate handling of the material makes this among the very best performances of his career.

Tarantino takes a huge risk in packing his movie with so much down time, as the extensive dialogue could be seen as self-indulgence from a writer in love with his own words. (Granted, the words here are pitch-perfect; who wouldn’t want more?). He then takes another risk by placing his movie second on the bill. It’s all quite possible that audiences wound up on the adrenaline of “Planet Terror” will find themselves getting restless with the talk-heavy “Death Proof.” And yet - ah, yes, it’s back to that opening question - not only is “Death Proof” the better film (if only by a hair), but the rambling dialogue it provides allows for a bit of a breather between Rodriguez’ antics and the coming barrage of action that wraps up Tarantino’s entry. Flip the movies around, and it’s quite possible that audiences would grow too weary of Rodriguez’ frenzied action, just when things were getting good.

Of course, no matter which way they play, the best part of this whole project is that we get two excellent filmmakers trying to one-up each other, resulting in two wildly different yet equally giddy valentines to cinematic sleaze. “Grindhouse” is a glorious movie experience, two brilliant movies slammed together in a two-for-one bonanza. It is, oh yes, just so damn freaking cool.

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