GRINDHOUSE (A double feature)
Planet Terror: Three stars
Death Proof: Four stars
Rose McGowan is Cherry Darling, a former go-go dancer and wannabe stand-up comic who sports a machinegun where once she had a leg. Kurt Russell is Stuntman Mike, a smiling, muscle car-driving speed-demon who has a hideous scar creasing his face and a propensity for imitating John Wayne and reminiscing about his days as an action stand-in for the likes of Robert Urich.
These are not the types of characters and performances that win Academy Awards, but they are the types of characters and performances that remind us why we still love the experience of going to the movies in actual theaters, with other human beings, so we can cheer when zombies get blown up, groan when the gross-out factor makes us turn from the screen, whistle when the lead babe shows a lot of leg and laugh heartily at all the sick humor on display. ("Hey, are those round gooey things in that bio-chemist's plastic bag what I think they are????")
Cherry Darling and Stuntman Mike are just two of dozens of memorable characters who show up in "Grindhouse," the slam-bang, blood-spattered, hell-of-a-good-time double feature of schlock and awe from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.
These movies look like crap on purpose, and that's what makes them so beautiful. You get the shaky projection, the cracks and pops in the audio, the hairs and tears in the film, even a few cases of entire reels "gone missing," just as if you were in a rundown grindhouse theater circa 1973. Rodriguez and Tarantino have lovingly, obsessively re-created the look and the feel of the low-budget exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s · the movies they loved as kids, the movies that influenced modern B-movie classics such as Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn" and Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films.
If you loved films like "Don't Look in the Basement," "The Hills Have Eyes" (original version), "Vanishing Point," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (the poster said Peter Fonda was "Drivin' Hard" and Susan George was "Ridin' Easy"), "Deathdream" and "Werewolves on Wheels," have a seat. The running time for "Grindhouse" goes past three hours, but this ain't no art house epic. What you get here is a drive-in double feature of two 90-minute films, along with trailers for exploitation whoppers with titles such as "Machete" ("They f----- with the wrong Mexican!") and "Werewolf Women of the S.S." Those trailers alone, with cameos by veteran B-actors and one Oscar winner, are worth the price of admission.
The two complete movies are "Planet Terror," directed by Rodriguez, followed by Tarantino's "Death Proof." Don't show up late, lest you miss the first trailer, and don't go to the bathroom between films or you'll miss all sorts of campy fun. "Planet Terror" has the classic zombie-movie setup, pitting a rag-tag band of survivors in an isolated town fending off a seemingly endless army of cannibalistic walking corpses who have been contaminated by a noxious chemical gas that makes their skin bubble with hideous boils and swells their heads to elephantine proportions.
This movie is all about the body count · mutant and human. Don't get too attached to any character, cuz you never know when he or she might become unattached to a limb or a head or some vital organs. (When a doctor looks down at a bloodied corpse and says, "This one's a no-brainer," it's meant literally.)
In the performance of her life, McGowan throws herself into the juicy, sexy, funny, comic book hero role of Cherry Darling, a noir-ish femme fatale whose dreams of becoming a stand-up comic collapse when she loses her limb in a mutant-caused car accident and literally doesn't have a leg to stand on. But Cherry doesn't have time for self-pity, because even as she's hooked to an IV, the hospital is being overrun by the aforementioned puss-dripping undead. Soon she's part of an ad hoc team of zombie-killing anti-heroes, which includes (among others) the local sheriff (a teeth-gritting Michael Biehn from "The Terminator"); a scientist (Naveen Andrews from "Lost") who's trying to find an antidote to the poisonous gas; a high-heeled, needle-wielding doctor named Dakota Block (Marley Shelton); foul-mouthed, hot-tempered twin babysitters, and Cherry's ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a veritable killing machine who never met a zombie he couldn't kill.
Also watch for bloody fun cameos from Bruce Willis; the singer Fergie (Black Eyed Peas), and Tarantino, who plays "Rapist No. 2," and a more gruesome death to a villain you have never seen. Rodriguez is a ridiculously talented writer, director, editor, composer, cinematographer, sound designer, etc., etc., and he absolutely nails the tone of the classic zombie gore-fest.
Even through all the winks and blood and decapitations, he gives us twisted little subplots and a handful of three-dimensional characters. The cast is strong, though it's a bit tough to buy the slight (albeit talented) Freddy Rodriguez as the baddest man on the planet. The sole reason I'm giving "Planet Terror" only three stars is I've never been a zombie-movie guy; I've always found this particular strain of undead, with their limited brainpower and their halting gaits and their dopey groaning, to be among the least interesting horror-movie monsters.
But for fans of the genre, "Planet Terror" is just about perfect. The reception to Tarantino's "Death Proof" might suffer a bit from the billing. This is a more deliberately paced, "real-world" thriller than "Terror Planet," and it spends much more time on hip-chick dialogue and elaborate set pieces than brutal killings. (Oh, but when the killings come, they're choice.)
If I were programming "Grindhouse," I would have gone with the dialogue-driven, character-heavy, car-chase-loving "Death Proof" first, followed by the more frenetic and cheerfully bloody "Planet Terror." Nevertheless, Tarantino makes great use of his love of car movies, vintage music and extended, circular, multi-character conversation in "Death Proof," which is essentially a two-part story about two groups of female friends who encounter the disarmingly friendly Stuntman Mike, who's either the most pathetic thing or the most dangerous thing on four wheels · or equal parts both.
If the foundation for "Planet Terror" is "Night of the Living Dead," the blueprint for "Death Proof" is "Vanishing Point." Kurt Russell, whose credits stretch all the way back to playing "Jungle Boy" on an episode of "Gilligan's Island," is perfectly cast as the gel-haired, deeply tanned, scar-faced Stuntman Mike, known to one and all as Stuntman Mike because he was a stuntman and his name is Mike. Sausaged into his shiny, stuntman's jacket with the big "Icy Hot" logo on the back, Stuntman Mike drinks non-alcoholic beverages and hangs out at a dive with a great jukebox and some fetching clientele, most notably a cocky and sexy DJ named Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier · you may have heard of her father, Sidney) and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd · you may have heard of her mom, Cheryl, and her grandfather, Alan) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito, whose parents you probably never heard of).
Also at the bar: Rose McGowan, with two legs. She's not playing Cherry Darling here · but we do catch brief glimpses of a few other characters from "Planet Terror" in Tarantino's movie, indicating that the stories take place in the same locale · with "Death Proof" transpiring before the cataclysmic events of "Planet Terror."
Looking for nothing more than a ride home, McGowan's Pam gets into Stuntman Mike's death-proof stunt car, and that's when things get violent in a hurry. Later Stuntman Mike has a highway encounter with Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas and New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who was Uma Thurman's double in the "Kill Bill" movies and plays herself here. Bell winds up on the hood of a car in an exhilarating chase sequence that's as thrilling as anything we've ever seen in the movies, from "Bullitt" to "The French Connection" to "To Live and Die in L.A."
When the open-road battle between Stuntman Mike and the three ladies finally skids to a halt, Tarantino gives us one last violent and extremely satisfying confrontation. After the nearly non-stop action of "Planet Terror," fans might fidget a bit as "Death Proof" takes its sweet time getting to the road-kill segments. The conversations here aren't as memorable as the banter in "Reservoir Dogs" or the exchanges in "Pulp Fiction," but even when he's not at his A-game best, Tarantino has a gift for quirky, insightful, darkly funny dialogue.
Taken as a whole · two movies and a handful of trailers · "Grindhouse" is pure popcorn fun. As long as you like your popcorn sprinkled with blood.