Back in the 1930s, the talent-heavy MGM studio created the slogan "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" to promote its big-budget extravaganzas. With apologies to studio head Louis B. Mayer, I find myself having to co-opt that pithy catchphrase, since one overall star rating doesn't do justice to the many individual components found in Grindhouse.
Designed as an homage to the low-budget exploitation flicks that ran rampant in past decades (most notably the 1970s), Grindhouse finds cinematic bad boys Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez attempting to create their own down-and-dirty double bill, two grisly features (complete with bogus trailers) that would have been right at home playing in a disreputable Times Square movie theater circa 1974. It's a terrific idea, but unfortunately, the quality of the individual works veers all over the map. Here, then, is a breakdown of the film, in the order that each segment hits -- err, splatters -- the screen.
Machete (trailer), directed by Robert Rodriguez. Grindhouse gets off to a roaring start with this faux-preview in which (shades of the current Shooter) a skilled marksman (Danny Trejo) becomes a pawn in a political assassination and turns the tables on the villainous masterminds. Trejo, about as mobile as a block of granite, may seem like an unlikely hero, but let's not forget that the equally leather-faced Charles Bronson -- also a far cry from the typical matinee idol -- enjoyed his greatest success during the 1970s. ***
Planet Terror (feature film), directed by Robert Rodriguez. The first of the two main attractions is tons of fun, not only in its gleeful siphoning from George Romero's zombie classics but also in the manner in which Rodriguez insures that every frame looks like it came from a beat-up film print buried in somebody's garage since the '70s. There are scratches and blotches evident throughout, as well as instances of bad sound looping and sloppily sliced frames (the "missing reel" is priceless). It sounds like it would be annoying, but it actually works for the benefit of the overall piece.
As for the story, it's the usual slime-and-grime saga of a plucky band of survivors fighting off hordes of shambling, oozing creatures who have all been infected by a deadly virus. As Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who becomes an unexpected leader when the body bits hit the fan, Rose McGowan delivers a robust performance, while Marley Shelton, as Dr. Dakota Block, shows off some deft comedic moves after a needle injection administered by her sadistic husband (Josh Brolin) forces her to ward off the marauding monsters without the use of her temporarily paralyzed hands.
Some anachronistic touches (e.g. text messaging, a mention of Osama bin Laden) and the use of an A-list actor (Bruce Willis) in a supporting role momentarily break the total grindhouse immersion, but that's a minor quibble. Gross but gleeful, Planet Terror knocks it into orbit. ***1/2
Werewolf Women of the S.S. (trailer), directed by Rob Zombie. Now here's a preview I would love to see expanded to feature-length form! Meshing such '70s sleazefests as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., The Werewolf of Washington, and Werewolves On Wheels, this preview milks most of its ingenuity from its cast, relying on familiar genre faces (Sybil Danning, Tom Towles) and capping it with a "special appearance" (by an actor who will do anything) that had me on the floor. ***1/2
Don't (trailer), directed by Edgar Wright. Wright, the British auteur behind Shaun of the Dead, creates a humorous preview that spoofs all those coming attraction spots that heavily rely on "Don't open that door"/"Don't look in the closet"/etc. It's amusing, but it doesn't really belong here. **1/2
Thanksgiving (trailer), directed by Eli Roth. There's not much wit or style -- just relentless gore -- in this preview by the director of Hostel. Still, considering there's been Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Mother's Day, and more, it is sorta surprising that turkey day hasn't merited its own slasher flick ... yet. *1/2
Death Proof (feature film), directed by Quentin Tarantino. Did Tarantino not understand the assignment? As an avowed video store geek, he knows as much as anybody about the grindhouse flicks of yesteryear, so why does his half of the movie resemble those cheapies only sporadically?
The premise is certainly ripe for potential: A sadistic, sexist creep known as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) uses his own souped-up vehicle as a weapon with which to murder comely young women. It's a little bit Death Race 2000, a little bit The Switchblade Sisters (which Tarantino's Rolling Thunder outfit rediscovered in 1996, 21 years after its initial release), and a lot of Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and other fast-car flicks from the 1970s. But in the end, Death Proof ends up resembling not so much a grindhouse flick as a Quentin Tarantino movie -- and a bad one at that.
With the exception of one gag already employed -- and to much greater effect -- by Rodriguez, there's very little that's wrong with the pristine look of Death Proof: It's as shiny and blemish-free as any other movie currently making the multiplex rounds. And Tarantino's show-off stylistics seem out of place here: One lengthy, circular tracking shot recalls Robert Altman's The Player or Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (both a looong way from tawdry exploitation, needless to say) more than it recalls schlocky grindhouse grist. But the real problem is that, until the final reel, Death Proof is practically all talk and no action. Generally a master of dialogue (witness the delicious conversations in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs), Tarantino has two sets of female protagonists -- a quartet of victims followed by a trio of avenging angels -- yak endlessly about relationships, sex and movies, resulting in boring gabfests that bring Grindhouse's early energy to a grinding halt. And Tarantino's habit of having characters (annoying Tracie Thoms is the worst offender) repeatedly use the "N" word (which seemed more appropriate in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) reveals an embarrassing fetish here, rendering the director the equivalent of the token white guy in a blaxploitation film.
All of this only serves to strip screen time away from Russell, who's actually quite good as the psycho on wheels. It's a career reinvention similar to Mickey Rourke's turn in Sin City, and it's a shame that Tarantino frequently leaves his MVP stranded on the side of the road. *1/2