Reviewed By The Ultimate Dancing Machine
Posted 04/06/07 19:00:00

"There’s a KILLDOZER reference. Therefore, it rocks."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s possible that GRINDHOUSE is nothing more than further evidence of Quentin Tarantino’s creative stagnation. Never known as a particularly original thinker, he now seems content with cranking out homages to other people’s movies. Of course, in some ways he’s been doing that from the start, but now he’s not even trying to hide it. QT used to stuff his films with arcane allusions that stumped all but the hardiest of film nerds; nowadays he has his characters debate the merits of VANISHING POINT, so you don’t even have to guess where he’s getting his ideas. Even so, GRINDHOUSE proves that the old boy—here capably backed up by long-time collaborator Robert Rodriguez—hasn’t altogether lost his mojo.

KILL BILL paid tribute to the balls-to-the-wall kung fu flicks of the ‘70s; and at first glance, GRINDHOUSE seems to be just another nostalgia project. But what’s different this time around is that Tarantino isn’t merely aping his favorite movies; he’s also honoring the milieu those films appeared in: the sleaze-infested theaters he frequented while growing up in Southern California. The movie is designed to replicate a typical night at a “grindhouse” theater: two feature films (the first directed by Robert Rodriguez, the other by QT himself) of the lurid b-movie variety, mixed with fake ads and fictional trailers to other flicks that don’t actually exist. This is a fairly nifty concept, and it’s almost churlish to point out that it’s been done before: Stanley Donen’s little-remembered MOVIE MOVIE (1978) employed the same idea and structure in parodying the cheapo double-features of the 1930s. QT can't even find an original framework in which to spin his fanboy fantasies.

GRINDHOUSE essentially pits Tarantino against his pal Robert Rodriguez in a contest to see who can out-grindhouse whom. And though QT has home-field advantage, so to speak, Rodriguez pulls out a convincing victory: his contribution, PLANET TERROR, is both more consistently entertaining and arguably more faithful to the spirit of the best ‘70s sleaze. A green gas is turning people into ravenous, highly infectious zombies, and only a ragtag band of survivors headed by Rose McGowan (who shoots up the joint with an assault rifle attached to what’s left of her amputated leg) can save humanity. Rodriguez manages to keep this schlocky plot escalating for a full 80 minutes, piling on the splatter with rather impressive abandon. Just imagine the climax to DEAD ALIVE stretched out to feature length, and you get an idea of the crazed energy on display. Rodriguez gets the madcap, pinballing quality that makes for fun, trashy sci-fi; his screenplay is full of witty lines and wonderfully absurd situations—even some gratuitous kung fu, as Joe Bob Briggs might put it. Rodriguez never reveals a condescending attitude toward his material; hell, he wallows in it, gleefully.

Part of the problem with QT’s effort is that it can’t match the energy of Rodriquez’s hyper-adrenalized film. It may have been better had the two films switched order. DEATH PROOF, a tale of a nutty stuntman (Kurt Russell) who uses his car as a lethal weapon, comes off like a warm up act that takes the stage after the main attraction. The film points up one of QT’s most enduring faults: for all his cleverness and love for cinema, the man has massive difficulty in the storytelling department. He simply does not know how to get from Point A to Point B in a reasonably efficient manner. DEATH PROOF is burdened with overlong conversations and unnecessary business; its plot is so awkwardly structured that it might not pass muster in a Screenwriting 101 course. That’s not to say that it lacks merit: the film finds QT returning to his hipster-deluxe style of dialogue (a considerable relief after the intentionally stilted babble of KILL BILL), and the car-chase scenes are excellent. But the script is obviously the work of a man who has grown fatally in love with his own voice. Again, this is nothing new from the pen of Tarantino—think all the way back to Steve Buscemi’s RESERVOIR DOGS monologue on tipping—but it indicates a lack of growth: he doesn’t seem to be learning any new tricks. Fortunately, DEATH PROOF caps off with a satisfyingly bang-up conclusion that redeems much of the rambling that precedes it.

Bridging the two films is a collection of ersatz trailers by, respectively, Rob Zombie (“Werewolf Women of the SS”), Edgar Wright (“Don’t”), and Eli Roth (“Thanksgiving”). (The movie kicks off with Rodriguez’s Hispano-action flick “Machete.”) This is the point where GRINDHOUSE may lose its less-savvy viewers: To anyone who isn’t familiar with those ‘70s film trailers, with their laughable taglines and overheated narration, these might seem merely silly. But Roth’s trailer, in particular, is in fact a dead-on impersonation of an old-school slasher flick. Roth somehow manages to poke merciless fun at idiotic horror movies while including almost nothing that you wouldn’t see in the real thing. By contrast, Rob Zombie’s effort betrays a little too much self-awareness, coming across as purposely goofy; it’s the weakest of the trailers for that reason.

One of the advantages of a project like GRINDHOUSE is that its flaws can be easily passed off as simple homage, even when there’s room to doubt that it really is. The sometimes choppy editing is clearly as much by design as the fake “creases” that mimic old beat-up film prints. But when an actor inflects a line poorly, which happens not infrequently in Rodriguez’s film, you’re left wondering whether it’s supposed to be like that, and, in the end, grudgingly giving the director the benefit of the doubt. In this way, GRINDHOUSE may be closest thing to a truly critic-proof movie in recent memory. When it’s good, it’s good; when it’s not so good...well, dummy, that’s obviously part of the master plan. Or so we’re led to believe. And maybe it’s a valid argument: after all, those old exploitation movies weren’t especially polished works of cinema. They chugged along in fits and starts; like DEATH PROOF, they sometimes gave you talk when you wanted action. They were made by people who lacked talent, resources, and much of the time even that perennial saving grace of the inept—passion. All they knew was how to produce spectacle, how to put asses in seats. And despite its defects, or maybe because of them, GRINDHOUSE ultimately succeeds in producing spectacle.

Though you could reasonably question the merits of a project where artistic clumsiness is supposed to be an asset, it’s hard to deny that GRINDHOUSE does what it’s supposed to do. This is not just a movie but a night at the movies, and these days that’s an experience too rare to pass up.

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