The key to what makes Quentin Tarantino a brilliant film maker isn’t the stories he’s telling (though some of those are brilliant) or his shot choices as a director but it is actually his skilled script writing. In all of his films that I’ve seen, from Kill Bill to Reservoir Dogs, people aren’t talking about the action sequences or even the amazing twists in his sometimes complex plots but instead they mention the brilliant dialogue. Everyone who has seen Pulp Fiction either loves the “Royale with Cheese” scene or thinks the religious monologue by Sammy L is ultra-cool (or both!) The same goes for Reservoir Dogs. The most memorable moments aren’t necessarily the botched heist or the aftermath but actually the planning itself, the “Like a Virgin” conversation in the diner or the choosing of the names when planning the robbery.
Even though Tarantino’s aim with Death Proof was to represent the Grindhouse films he loved and was influenced by as he grew up, he still manages to include long, awesome and strangely gripping sections of, often irrelevant, dialogue. In fact in a film about a killer stuntman who uses his “Death Proofed” car as a weapon, it is actually the scenes that lead up to the murders or attacks that make this film more interesting and consequently more watchable.
The film is one of two parts, literally. The first being shot in the traditional, “flaws and all” Grindhouse style that Tarantino wanted to depict and the second being made in a more modern style. In both sections, the graphic, exciting attacks on the female victims are preceded by great moments of tense, funny, strange but ultimately usual or even average dialogue and conversation that we have come to expect from Tarantino. This could be a DJ’s practical joke on her friend, an aged stuntman trying to show off with his out-dated film appearances to younger females or girls sharing stories about men, sex and botched stunts. The conversations, as inane and unrelated to the film as they are, are the best and sometimes most interesting parts of Death Proof.
That’s not to say that the “action sequences” aren’t very cool and imaginative. The way in which Stuntman Mike (played very coolly by Kurt Russell) kills his victims is depicted in a brilliantly, B-Movie, Grindhouse gory style. The major stunt, performed daringly by Zoe Bell (who plays herself), in which Stuntman Mike’s death proof car rams into another car that Zoe is riding on the bonnet, is breathtaking and amazing to watch. I defy anyone not be gripped by this whole sequence as Mike relishes in the terror he is causing the two girls in the car and Zoe Bell riding on top.
Another enjoyable aspect of Death Proof is spotting the budget effects and Grindhouse homages that Tarantino has lovingly recreated, from dodgy cuts, obviously re-used locations as different places and even moments in which the film is “damaged.” It’s a great skill in itself and adds a little bit more charm to the first half of the film.
My main problem is, there isn’t much of a story. Tarantino has become synonymous with sharp dialogue, cool direction and a gripping story. Pulp Fiction could be watched over and over, gaining new parts to the complex but satisfying story everytime and Reservoir Dogs benefits from not actually seeing the botched robbery but instead focusing on the bloody aftermath. As cool a character as Stuntman Mike is and as great an idea as his Death Proof car is, once he’s shown you his trick once, there isn’t anywhere else to go and the story isn’t really there. It’s just Stuntman Mike attacks and sometimes kills girls.
The benefit of this is that Tarantino “pads-out” or even develops the victims of the attacks (and Stuntman Mike himself to a certain extent) with the sharp, witty and cool dialogue heavy build-up to the action intense scenes. This does help the film and make it very watchable but ultimately, cool dialogue alone leaves this film far behind his other classics.
Overall, Tarantino produces a very good homage to the Grindhouse films he loved as a kid. There are moments of the Tarantino spark with dialogue that makes key characters interesting and keeps you watching but when those moments are over, and even with a very cool, tense and thrilling major stunt, you are left feeling a little short-changed. Tarantino seems to be a victim of his own success.
(1-3 – awful/avoid. 4-6 – average. 7-8 – good. 9-10 – fantastic.)