It has to be said that no film could be as fun as the promise of "Grindhouse," with its double-feature assurances of being packed to the rotting rafters with every every sticky shameless cinematic pleasure â€” 191 minutes of thoughtless, tasteless filmic bliss. "Grindhouse" is mightily enjoyable, but it’s never quite delivers the gluttonous gratification we’d guess directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who slap each other heartily on the back throughout, felt while making the film. Also, aside from the priceless faux trailers tucked in between the two halves â€” Rob Zombie‘s "Werewolf Women of the S.S." has a brilliant non sequitur of an appearance by Nicolas Cage as "Fu Manchu," and a deadpan ad for the AcuÃ±a Boys Restaurant "right next door to the theater" parades a gloriously unappetizing array of khaki-colored food â€” the film never wholeheartedly commits to aping the exploitations films the boy-king pair have been claiming as context, which we’re not sure is a complaint.
Rodriguez’s smearily over-the-top "Planet Terror" looks like a grindhouse film â€” the stock is scratched, discolored and warped, it curls at the edges, and at one point burns out, leaving behind a solemn apology from the management about the missing reel (a tic echoed in Taratino’s installment). It was all lovingly added in post-production â€” "Planet Terror" was shot on digital and is, beneath the appended grit, a slick bit of exorbitance. The film is less a narrative than a frantic mash-up of exploitation tropes: zombies; lesbian affairs; an ominous, amputation-happy hospital; things exploding into balls of flame for absolutely no reason; renegade scientists; tattooed men with mysterious pasts; monstrous soldiers; ludicrous dialogue (and endless amputee jokes); melting genitals; Texas barbecue â€” you’ll find them all in "Planet Terror." Rose McGowan leads as Cherry Darling, a discontented go-go dancer who weeps as she shimmies to Rodriguez’s woozy theme music, until she’s reunited with her former flame (a surprisingly charismatic Freddy RodrÃguez), separated from her leg by zombies, and given a machine gun with which to replace it.
The film wobbles between a genuine embrace of its own trashiness and a smug acknowledgment of its own camp qualities, which is an irritant â€” overt, calculated kitsch seems like cheating, or at least undermining what we’d imagine to be "Grindhouse"’s mission statement. "Planet Terror"’s aggressive pursuit of new kickassery is a good time that’s quick to fade from mind, though the soon-to-be-iconic image of a bandeau-topped McGowan gimping along on her high caliber artificial limb doesn’t. Neither does the winkingly clumsy (which, in this context, works) attempt to tie the film’s action to the war in Iraq, which ultimately finds Freddy RodrÃguez, biting back tears, barking "God bless you for your service to this country" before blowing Bruce Willis‘ head off. Hilarious!
Taratino’s "Death Proof" is a trickier beast, a clever and sleekly shot semi-thriller that’s a grindhouse film in form. The tone is uneven, the pacing languid, the structure completely ridiculous â€” the film meanders with one set of characters for at least half the runtime, setting up plot threads that go nowhere and hinting at backstories, only to then kill most of those people off in a burst of impressive violence and start over with a new set. All of which is, actually, dead on, though "Death Proof" turns out to be foremost a love letter from Tarantino to himself. The film’s wandering focus never passes up characters talking about nothing in particular, whether that nothing be old TV shows, 60s UK pop groups or Tarantino in-jokes. This far into his career, it’s impossible not to hear him, the auteur-cum-ventriloquist, behind every character, especially with concoctions like Sydney Tamiia Poitier‘s alpha Amazon Julia, who smokes weed like a fiend and tosses out idle references to "Cannonball Run" and Zatoichi without any doubt that those around her will know exactly what she’s talking about. Still, there’s an unhurried quality to the conversations that oh-so-good â€” Kurt Russell, better than he’s been in a long time as baddie Stuntman Mike, notably seems to savor his every line before spitting it out. In the latter chunk of the film, the action’s allowed to grind to a total halt as the camera circles the film’s second group of girls, gathered around a diner table chatting about "Vanishing Point" for. Fucking. Ever. It’s so indulgent that you suspect Tarantino of trying to insert himself into the B-movie history he dwells over â€” here’s a bit of slasher/stalker flick, here’s some tough girl revenge story, and here’s a slab of vintage Tarantino, inheritor of the entire kingdom.
We could care less about where Tarantino would put himself in the canon, but we can’t deny his virtuosity, and for every annoying departure and moment of celluloid navel-gazing, there’s are a dozen shots of such unfettered Ã©lan â€” the head-bobbing sequence leading up to a crash, say, or a drowsy jukebox dance, or the lengthy car chase that we know was done without the help of CGI because a character all but turned to the camera and told us so.
Wait â€” maybe he actually did.
"Grindhouse" opens wide on April 6th.
+ "Grindhouse" (Weinstein Company)