Well damn if you ain’t so sweet you make sugar taste just like salt.
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 113 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russel, Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson
This film represents Tarantino’s fifth full-length feature film. He is credited with more against his name as a director, but I have discounted guest appearances and shorts from the list. Like it or lump it, my argument is that this is his fifth.
“Death Proof” is one part of a double feature called “Grindhouse” that Tarantino worked on with Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie. “Grindhouse” was not meant to be two films by all accounts; from interviews I am led to believe that there would be a massive single film with “Death Proof” as one of two main films interwoven between shorts and vignettes. But after the full grindhouse project failed to meet expectations at pre-release screenings in the US market, the film was halved, and “Death Proof” was given its own life.
The other part of the grindhouse double feature was “Planet Terror”, which, as well as a retaining a small segment for “Death Proof”, brought segments such as “Machete” (which went on to be a standalone feature), “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”, “Don’t”, “Thanksgiving”, and “Hobo with a Shotgun” (which also went on to be a standalone too).
The idea behind the whole “Grindhouse” project was to make something that paid homage to and used the style of 1970’s exploitation films. The initial poor reception meant that although it is not a single film anymore, a drive-in double feature could still be achieved – so still working within the parameters of the project to some extent. The two titles, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” were eventually released two months apart and kind of referenced each other too.
So, what is it then? Well, “Death Proof” is an exploitation slasher film starring Kurt Russell as a psychotic stuntman who murders young women in car accidents using his “death-proof” stunt car. He stalks some women early on, who he manages to dispatch with minimum effort, but cannot be charged by the law despite them thinking he is responsible. Later, he stalks some more women, but he is up against meaner opposition this time as one of them herself is a stunt person too.
Kurt Russell plays the stuntman, Mike McKay. Before being cast, Tarantino attempted to get John Travolta, Willem Defoe, John Malkovich, Mickey Rourke, Ron Pearlman, Bruce Willis, Kal Penn, Ving Rhames, John Jarrett, or Sylvester Stallone. That is not to say that Russell was not in the running, by all accounts, he was on a shortlist, the others just had prior commitments which meant Tarantino was able to go with him. Again, from interviews, Tarantino thought that Russell had been away from bad-ass roles for too long, playing more conventional nicey-nicey roles.
Russell’s performance offers plenty of aestheticism and he plays the gritty and weary killer stuntman with aplomb. His performance felt like his Snake Plissken character from “Escape from New York” (1981) has taken a wrong turn somewhere on his path of life and ended up here, old, dirty, and unhinged.
Starring opposite Russell is a formidable mix of talent including Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell as herself, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Rose McGowan, Jordan Ladd, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Keep an eye open for Tarantino making his regular cameo, and fellow “Grindhouse” director Eli Roth features along the way too.
Zoë Bell did not realise she would be cast as a leading lady when she initially got the call. Tarantino was that impressed with her as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill” that he wanted her in the film, and furthermore, he wanted her to play a version of herself too. It was her first on-screen acting role, and she does herself proud as a bad-ass foe to Russell’s psychotic stuntman. In fact there is a lot of bad-assery on show from the other female leads too. In this, despite the stuntman thinking he’s in a mans world, (to quote James Brown), “it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl”. (OK, that was a little cheesy wasn’t it!)
In trying to make “Death Proof” fit in with the grindhouse ethos, lots of techniques were used to make the film look, feel, and sound like an ultra-low-budget B-Movie. There are times were the picture looks washed out, and other times where it looks like bad editing has stitched the film together. These were all intentional techniques and it really gives the film a dirty and seedy feel. The music used also adds to this, the soundtrack is comprised of non-original music, with other film scores used rather than making something new for this. The constructs used help to make the film look fitting of the era it is paying homage too. One thing I noticed though from watching “Planet Terror” as well as this – in that the “Death Proof” segment looks even more ultra-low-budget. The standalone version of “Death Proof” is more polished, and in fact, towards the end of “Death Proof” there is a noticeable shift from what the first two acts brought in terms of style.
I have gone this far without explaining the meaning behind the title of “Death Proof” so allow me a moment for that. Stunt people and film production teams would make a stunt car “death-proof” so it could be smashed and hammered without killing the person driving it. Roll-bars and reinforced body work were added under the shell of the vehicle that the audience could not see, thus making the stunt professionals safer than if they were using a commercially bought car which would probably crumple (I like writing that word – “ccccrumple”) after impact. With a fascination for this concept, Tarantino wondered if this could be combined and used in a slasher film context, and hey-presto – the film was almost writing itself. There are at least two top muscle cars on show in the film, a souped up 1970 Chevy Nova SS which the stuntman has at the start of the film, and a reinforced 1969 Dodge Charger later on. Please don’t send me questions about the cars – I’m the furthest person from a ‘petrol head’ that you could find.
Fun Fact: Tarantino was drinking with Sean Penn when he suggested he was going to buy a Volvo so he didn’t die in an accident like the one featured in “Pulp Fiction”. Penn suggested getting any car and just giving it to a stunt team to sort out and make “death-proof”.
Having read a lot of reviews about this film there seems to be mixed feeling about it. Where some people have said it was an over-glamourisation of exploitation films which serve no purpose in today’s modern film market I can see their point. I would argue that there is a market for all types of films though, and while humans are such unique and different creatures there will always be somebody that likes what a director pumps out. This might not be a film in the traditional mould of styles that Tarantino has used before, or what audiences expect from him – there are not any random flashbacks for one, but that does not mean it is any less of a Tarantino film. The power that the author of a piece of work has, is the ability to change things up occasionally, unfortunately not everybody handles change well. In imitating a style that is not as fashionable as it once was in its heyday, this low-budget style film is still plenty of fun for hardcore film fans. This is more of a straightforward genre movie than Tarantino’s usual homage laden films provide, it’s free from irony, very old-fashioned – but it still has a place in film and is a success on its own terms.
Fun Fact: Tarantino trademarks and motif’s pop-up in this film as much as in any other. Looking in the boot (trunk) of a car, the corpse POV, the use of black & white, the foot fetish, the record player close-up, the mirror shot, the dance scene, bathrooms, the restaurant/bar scene, the driving a car shot (obvs. for this film), telephones, “G.O. Juice” “Big Kahuna Burgers“… sadly I didn’t see any samurai swords or “Red Apple” cigarettes though to complete a bingo-style ‘full house’.
With its 113-minute runtime, some audience members might think the film drags on a little in places, and I happen to agree. I cannot concede though that I did not enjoy the film. It still provided lots of fun and excitement for me to watch, but in my opinion, I preferred Tarantino’s last feature film outing with “Kill Bill”, and I also preferred the “Planet Terror” film which only featured a small segment for “Death Proof”. Still, there are a lot worse films out there and I’d happily sit in front of this one again.