Critic's Notebook: 'Death' reincarnated

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CANNES -- So how does Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" look now that it has been liberated from the "Grindhouse" conceit? The opportunity to find out has come as his film, in a format designed for overseas distribution, is showing In Competition at the Festival de Cannes.

The gimmick of "Death Proof," of course, was for Tarantino and his filmmaker buddy, Robert Rodriquez, to create two separate exploitation flicks that might have played together on a double bill at a grindhouse cinema in the 1970s, complete with missing scenes from beaten-up prints and Coming Attractions for other low-budget B movies.

Dimension Films suffered at the boxoffice when young audiences either didn't get the concept or simply didn't care. Also, a running time of more than three hours didn't help. The plan was always to release the two films, Tarantino's female revenge car-stunt movie "Death Proof" and Rodriquez's zombie horror film "Planet Terror," as individual movies in foreign territories. But "Grindhouse's" failure in North American certainly underscored the wisdom of that strategy.

What you lose when you separate these retro exploitationers, of course, is the tongue-in-cheek context. These two directors spent countless hours in grindhouses and certainly absorbed much of their cinematic aesthetic from those experiences. In "Grindhouse," they fondly remember those '70s movies which broke all the rules of film decorum to give mostly young audiences hot girls, fast cars and buckets of blood.

It was probably predictable that at its initial press screening at the Palais on Monday night boos and applause would mingle at the end. Meant to look cheap and nasty -- while in fact this is anything but a low budget movie -- the film feels out of place amid the subtitled angst and measured drama of Competition films. It also doesn't look like a film that measures up to Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," which won the Palme d'Or 13 years ago, or the "Kill Bill" films, the second of which screened at the festival in 2004.

Yet "Death Proof" remains a film that does take its artistic chances. It's a film that bears only a superficial resemblance to a '70s exploitationer. It is constructed in two acts rather than the traditional three and spends more time on two different posses of hilariously gabby young women than on action. Indeed playing on the bottom end of the "Grindhouse" twin bill, the non-stop gab at the beginning of "Death Proof" caused more than a few young men, with attention spans not tuned to three-hour movies, to vacate theaters since no action was on the foreseeable horizon.

"Death Proof" fits in nicely with Tarantino's growing oeuvre, even if it is a film with rudimentary motives and action. The filmmaker is still rethinking pulp movie fiction with a post-modern sensibility. His point is that you can sneak in a lot of subtle philosophical and psychological depth into sex talk and car stunts. As far as he is concerned, the best exploitation filmmakers always did that.

The new version clocks in at 113 minutes. Only two notable additions have been made to "Death Proof," one in each act. In both, Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike, a riveting portrait in grizzled, pathological evil, stalks two sets of beautiful young women in his "death proof" stunt car.

In the first act, these chicks, out for a night of heavy partying in Austin, Texas, are lead by Sydney Tamiia Poitier's bad-ass drive-time radio DJ and local celebrity, Jungle Julia. The ongoing intrigue is whether any male listener to her program is going to take up her challenge that evening to buy a drink for her female companion -- Vanessa Ferlito's 'Butterfly' -- while quoting a Robert Frost poem and thereby win a lap dance.

In the earlier version, Butterfly agrees to give the winner, none other than Stuntman Mike, that lap dance. But this proves to be one of the print's "Missing Scenes," as some projectionist long ago snipped it for his own private collection. In the Cannes version, that scene is no longer missing. Let's just say that Ferlito's sexy dance routine proves worth the wait over these several months.

In the second section of the movie, 14 months after Stuntman Mike's car has killed all the girls in a head-on collision, he has moved on to Lebanon, Tennessee. Here he stalks a new set of hot babes -- this time crew members of a movie shooting locally -- as well as one stuntwoman. This proves to be Stuntman Mike's undoing as they are better at this game than he.

The addition here doesn't really add much. Before the game gets underway, there is an encounter between Mike and his new intended victims at a roadside convenience store. The sequence goes to black and white. While one woman goes to buy a magazine, Stuntman Mike menacingly plays with the dangling bare feet of another girl as they hang from the backseat window. About all this adds is an opportunity for Mary Elizabeth Winstead to sing, quite well by the way, the classic rock ballad "Baby It's You."

The final chase duel of the Dodge Challengers in the thrilling climax still bothers you a bit since some logic drops away. Stuntman Mike's car is reinforced everywhere since it is a stunt car. The girls' Dodge is not. So how does it survive?

You can shrug that off to movie magic, but more problematic is how the women allow Stuntman Mike to toy with them in the initial moments of the showdown. By simply applying the brake, their car could fall suddenly behind so New Zealand stuntwoman extraordinaire Zoe Bell, basically playing herself, can climb down off the hood where she has been fooling around in a deliberate death-defying stunt.

Oh well, Tarantino would probably argue that logic was always missing in grindhouse movie action, and he wouldn't be wrong. If "Death Proof" is his way of marking time before his next big project, it is certainly interesting that at this stage of his career he can throw together such a compelling and funny time marker.
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