Sydney Tamiia Poitier
So has Quentin Tarantino officially lost it? On Death Proof’s US release (as part of the double-bill feature Grindhouse), many newspapers took an almost macabre delight in reporting the former wunderkind’s first official failure.
In retrospect, Grindhouse’s well-documentated poor box office showing was easy to predict. Today’s audiences, so used to state-of-the-art in every respect, were never going to accept two films shown back-to-back, complete with authentic scratches on the pictures, missing reels, and strange switches from colour to black & white for seemingly no reason.
Sadly then, Death Proof arrives on these shores on its own: cleaned up (but not too much), missing reels restored and missing the much heralded ‘fake trailers’ that came with the original. And while it’s good – in parts, it’s excellent – there’s a creeping feeling that if the studio had left it well alone, it could have been so much better.
The plot is Tarantino’s take on the slasher genre. Stuntman Mike (played brilliantly by Kurt Russell) stalks groups of young women, terrorises them and eventually kills them. The twist is that his weapon is his own car, tailor made to protect him and prevent his own death – hence the tile.
Death Proof is divided into two halves, with the opening of the film introducing the first group of Stuntman Mike’s victims, led by Sydney Tamiia Poitier’s Jungle Julia, a radio DJ. The trademark Tarantino stretches of dialogue are present and correct, although this time it all seems a lot less compelling than before.
Although the film does take some time to warm up, once Russell enters the frame, it all changes. He plays Stuntman Mike perfectly, starting all suave, charming and dangerous, then turning creepy and terrifying before being exposed as a bullying coward. While Death Proof won’t win any Oscars, it’s Russell who deserves an award here.
Of the woman, Poitier is excellent – charismatic and sexy, with Tarantino’s camera roaming over her long legs like some kind of voyeur. Rose McGowan is also her usual reliable self as Mike’s first victim, while Vanessa Ferlito gives a star-making performance as Butterfly. Of the women in the second half, the gorgeous Rosario Dawson shows her star quality, but Tracie Thoms, by contrast, is plain annoying and stuntwoman Zoe Bell proves that she may be a damn fine stuntwoman, but sadly she’s no actress.
Tarantino fans will have fun spotting the usual references (mentioning of Big Kahuna burgers, the reappearance of minor characters from Kill Bill, close up shots of feet etc), while detractors will note the director’s more annoying tendencies are still in effect (the obligatory acting cameo and his infuriating habit of writing black characters who can only say the words ‘nigga’ and ‘bitch’).
The last 20 minutes or so, when Dawson and Bell turn the tables on Russell are adrenaline fuelled brilliance. The rest of the film swings wildly from cute fanboy references (the ringtone on Dawson’s phone is featured in Kill Bill) to long, drawn-out dialogue about cult films such as Vanishing Point and Big Wednesday.
Being Tarantino, Death Proof is never less than interesting – indeed at times, it’s utterly exhilarating. Yet the director’s own high standards, and the fact that we know the film has been chopped and changed to make it more palatable to a mass audience means that it sadly must go down as a missed opportunity.