“Death Proof,” Quentin Tarantino’s half of the “Grindhouse” double bill with Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” that quickly came and went at U.S. theaters, proves its worth as a stand-alone feature in the expanded international version prepped to preem in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Although overall impact of Tarantino’s homage to chick-driven actioners and auto demolition derbies remains about the same, pic’s second half, in particular, benefits from the further detailing it’s now received. Although Stateside engagements for the elongated “Death Proof” would probably not be commercially justified beyond locales boasting plentiful numbers of the director’s fans, overseas figures could be OK.
Designed to replicate the look and cheap thrills of ’70s-era exploitationers, the ultimate “Death Proof” differs from its sources of inspiration in three prominent ways: At 114 minutes, having grown by 27 minutes, it’s considerably longer than such films ever were; its merits reside as much in its dialogue as in the kick-ass action, and it cost far, far more than a producer such as Roger Corman would ever have allowed.
It’s easy to say in retrospect, but the obvious mistaken production decision with the entire “Grindhouse” project was to not keep it on an extremely tight financial leash. Despite the big bucks Tarantino and Rodriguez had generated for the Weinsteins in the past, the producers should have held their star directors to adjusted-for-inflation ’70s-level budgets, forcing them to cope just the way their much-admired predecessors did.
The Austin-set first half of “Death Proof” has been elaborated in ways that fans will pick up on but significantly alter one’s perception of the characters in only one regard; photos attached to Kurt Russell’s car visor reveal that he’s been stalking the women and hasn’t ended up in the bar with them by chance.
Otherwise, the augmented gamey chatter among the first set of girls only serves to demonstrate that the actresses here are not on the same level as the ones to come in the second half. Beyond this, one now gets to witness the pretty cool lapdance Vanessa Ferlito gives to Kurt Russell, as well as a sexual negotiation on a rainy porch.
The big addition to the second, Tennessee-set portion of the film is obvious since it comes right at the beginning and is in black-and-white. Setting is the parking lot of a roadside convenience store, where the film crew workers — played by Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead — make a pit stop while heading to pick up a visiting pal (Zoe Bell) at the airport. Russell pulls up and hassles them momentarily, but the mood is generally relaxed and genial, a warm-up for the overheated action to come.
One agreeable plus is the emergence of Winstead, who instead of a tag-along now seems like a full-fledged member of the sassy-mouthed team.
Once Bell arrives, pic seems the same as before, with one subjective difference; when “Death Proof” was part of the giant “Grindhouse” package, the big car chase kicked in around the two-and-a-half-hour point, meaning a certain fatigue factor had inevitably set in. If only for that reason, or perhaps because it’s so well executed that it bears repeat scrutiny very well, the chase — as well as the fisticuffs capper — proves even more exhilarating the second time around.
Same goes for Bell, whose entirely winning spunk and gung-ho attitude went somewhat under-appreciated in the wake of the media emphasis on the “Grindhouse” commercial flop.