When they played together as part of the 'Grindhouse' double-feature in 2007, Robert Rodriguez's monster movie 'Planet Terror' and Quentin Tarantino's car chase epic 'Death Proof' divided many fans. The majority of viewers preferred the Rodriguez half, with many of them leveling some downright scathing criticism on Tarantino's entry. Part of the problem is that the two films are very tonally different. While 'Planet Terror' is a goofy B-movie that's action-packed from start to finish and never takes itself seriously, 'Death Proof' is… well… it's a Quentin Tarantino film. The picture is extremely talky, complexly structured, and takes its time building up steam. A lot of time. Conceptually, the two features were actually well-matched in 'Grindhouse'. B-movie double-features of the 1970s often paired together such radically different films that had nothing to do with one another. But there's no denying that 'Planet Terror' sets a certain expectation that 'Death Proof' more or less deflates. I wonder how audiences would have reacted had the order been re-arranged? On the other hand, 'Death Proof' builds to an incredibly rousing finale that sends the double-bill out on a high note, and seems better positioned at the back-end for that reason.
Much like 'Planet Terror', 'Death Proof' isn't really a grindhouse B-movie. It's Quentin Tarantino's interpretation of what grindhouse B-movies should have been, filtered through his own sensibilities. The film starts on a languid, hot summer night in Austin, TX. A trio of young babes led by a radio DJ and local celebrity called Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamaiia Poitier) are out on the town trawling bars, getting drunk, and smoking weed, all the while endlessly talking about the sort of things that Quentin Tarantino characters usually talk about -- in other words, pop culture touchstones that are both meaningless and deeply imbued with personal relevance at the same time. In this case, the main topic of conversation is music of the 1970s, Julia's particular expertise. At some point, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) introduces himself. The girls sum him up pretty quickly as a middle-aged hanger-on, a little pathetic in his attempt to impress the ladies with his dubious Hollywood connections and a jacket adorned with sponsorship labels from the likes of IcyHot and Husky. Yet there's also something strangely charismatic about him, mixed with no small measure of creepiness. They don't give him a lot of thought and eventually say their good-byes expecting to never see him again, but Stuntman Mike has other plans for the evening.
This first storyline takes a long time to get going. In fact, in this Extended and Unrated version, Stuntman Mike doesn't make his intentions known until a full 45 minutes into the picture, after which the story comes to a shocking and swift conclusion, and then the movie switches gears and jumps forward more than a year in time. The second half focuses on an entirely new set of characters on break from a film shoot in Tennessee. There's the actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the makeup artist (Rosario Dawson), and two stuntwomen (Tracie Thoms and Zoë Bell, the latter actually playing herself). Similarly to the first act, the ladies spend a lot of time hanging out and bullshitting, primarily about famous movie car chases and Zoë's obsession with driving a "1970 Dodge Challenger with 440 engine and white paint job" just like the one in 'Vanishing Point'. Stuntman Mike is once again on the prowl, and has some ideas for a day's entertainment that the women won't be expecting.
Here's the thing about 'Death Proof'. On a first viewing, the movie can feel incredibly frustrating in the way the story is laid out. However, at the conclusion (and especially clear in repeated viewings), the structure is kind of brilliant in its way. Tarantino spends a considerable amount of time setting viewer expectations for what type of movie they're watching, only to pull the rug out halfway through. Then he sets it up again seemingly to do the exact same thing, but turns the tables in the last act with a lengthy and, to be blunt about it, fucking amazing car chase -- staged entirely without CGI or other visual effects bullshit, just real cars and real stuntpeople moving very fast -- that blows the roof off the whole movie and is quite simply the most purely enjoyable thing that Quentin Tarantino has ever directed.
Although I realize that I'm in the minority with this opinion, I liked 'Death Proof' a lot more than 'Planet Terror'. Of the two, it's also the one that holds up the best as its own movie separated from 'Grindhouse'. The Extended version adds nearly half an hour of new footage, most of it substantive changes that help to flesh out the characters and story. Among other things, Arlene's lap dance has been restored, along with a significant amount of material for the Lee character. However, Lee's storyline is still left hanging without resolution, and I remain disappointed that Tarantino missed the opportunity to cut back to it for a quick wrap-up during the end credits.
In the final analysis, 'Death Proof' is perhaps Tarantino's weakest film as director so far. The movie functions best as it was originally intended, as part of the 'Grindhouse' double-feature, which was a greater achievement than either of its parts individually. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining B-movie homage that stands up pretty well on its own.
And Zoë Bell rocks. I just had to say that.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Death Proof' has been available on DVD since October of 2007. Due to fall-out from the HD format war and The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment's ambivalence towards releasing its movies in High Definition, the title has only now made the transition to Blu-ray. Going by the packaging, the studio has officially given this release the unwieldy title of 'Grindhouse Presents Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof – Extended and Unrated'.
The Blu-ray contains only the 114-minute extended cut of 'Death Proof', which runs 24 minutes longer than the version that played as part of 'Grindhouse'. Robert Rodriguez's co-feature 'Planet Terror' is available separately.
Just like 'Planet Terror', 'Death Proof' has been deliberately designed to emulate a tattered theatrical print that's been run far too many times at the grindhouse theater. The picture has recurring appearances of simulated film scratches, dirt, debris, and jump cuts. However, while Robert Rodriguez really went overboard with the effect and made every single frame of his movie look like it'd been scraped off the projection room floor, Tarantino's film is more organic and natural. The film damage is often sporadic. In fact, the entire last act of the movie is virtually spotless.
In addition to the film damage effects, 'Death Proof' goes through three distinct phases in visual appearance. The first act looks a little soft and faded, with washed out contrasts that lose detail in both whites and blacks. At the transition to the second storyline, the entire picture turns black & white for an extended scene, as if the footage had to be spliced in from a b&w dupe print. At the end of the scene, the image immediately pops back into full color that's much sharper and more vibrantly saturated than before. As noted above, this entire final section of the movie is nearly devoid of the scratch and dirt effects.
Unlike 'Planet Terror', the 'Death Proof' Blu-ray retains the movie's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is extremely faithful to the intended style, and has a very natural, film-like appearance. Detail is strong, and a significant upgrade over the DVD edition (much more so than 'Planet Terror'). The big car chase makes for some splendid High Definition imagery.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also an excellent representation of the movie's artistic intentions. In keeping with the grindhouse spirit, audio in the first half is mainly basic stereo without much surround activity. Dialogue is sometimes a little flat, and some of the source music is shrill (like it's being played off old vinyl), but most of it sounds just fine.
Things pick up in a big way in the second half with the chase scene. The surround channels are put to much more aggressive use and the roar of revving engines will get your subwoofer rocking.
All of the bonus features from the DVD have carried over to the Blu-ray.
The Weinstein Company is really doing 'Grindhouse' fans a disservice by keeping 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof' separated. Neither movie is as strong on its own as the original 'Grindhouse' experience. The closest we can get now is to watch the two Blu-rays back-to-back, but even that's not quite the same. Of the two features, 'Death Proof' holds up on its own the best, and the Blu-ray has a very strong transfer. The disc comes recommended. Or rather, half-recommended, since you pretty much need to buy 'Planet Terror' to complete the package.