Call him a desperate cinematic plagiarist, a barmy genius or an auteur who inserts himself quite obviously into his texts but at the end of the day, love or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is a Palme d’Or winner for a reason and everybody seems to have an opinion. Whether you swing into the like or loathe category, most have favourites (Django Unchained /Reservoir Dogs /Pulp Fiction ) and one that they just cannot stomach (Kill Bill Vol.2 ) or one that they love unequivocally. For me, that is Death Proof (2007).
As appears to be the norm with Tarantino he channels Blaxploitation and here, joins homaging forces with Ozploitation, French New Wave and the Slasher to give a really enjoyable ride; revenge is a dish best served hot rod at 130 mph. Released alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) as a Grindhouse double feature, the premise is a slasher road movie in which a group of women are stalked by a lone wolf ex-stuntman who has little to do but force them off the road for shits and giggles. The first half of the film follows Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her friends Arlene a.k.a Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) on a night out. They stop off at a bar, of which Warren (Tarantino) is the proprietor and drink cocktails, down shots and generally ‘bust the balls’ of the three men in their company – Eli Roth, Omar Doom and Michael Bacall (all three would later become Inglourious Basterds ). Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), it would appear, has been on their tails for some time, cut to a wonderful in-car-moment which does for ‘Hold Tight’, and the erroneously misnamed Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich (it’s Mick), what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ did for Wayne’s World (1992, dir. Penelope Spheeris). There is an interlude and a flash forward following a crossover sequence involving the Planet Terror hospital and Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), this time Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Zoë Bell) are in town taking a break from filming – they all work in the film industry – when Mike strikes again. Subsequent to the masochistic fender-bender of the first half, these ladies are ready for him.
This film has all the markings of the 70s and 80s; retrotitles, an amazing soundtrack, jumbo cuts, fast zooms and scratches on the print adds authenticity and while these elements are in keeping with Rodriguez’s Terror it manages so much more even, randomly, switching to black and white. This is Tarantino’s most feminist movie, these are sexually confident, voracious women who love men but also each other’s company (they even manage conversations where men are not even mentioned, although not quite as many as one would like) and best of all they kick ass. These savvy women are only as good as their aggressor and this is Kurt Russell’s best role in years. As Stuntman Mike, fetishised with a facial scar – the first time we see him, fully, onscreen is in close up shovelling greasy nachos into his mouth – he is Snake Plissken by way of John Wayne, his baby blues and dimples still visible beneath the aged, craggy demeanour. Russell is beguiling and repugnant in equal measure with a beautiful maniacal laugh to boot, as Mike, he revels in inflicting pain and yet is not a fan of it himself and watching him writhe, scream and cry in agony is a very pleasurable experience, especially following the heinous, violent misogynistic code he appears to live by.
There are, as expected, several nods to Tarantino’s earlier work including Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk Till Dawn ( technically Rodriguez’s film but with a Tarantino script), Pulp Fiction , Kill Bill (2003) and several allusions to the films of the genre(s) he is paying homage to; Fair Game (1986, dir. Mario Andreacchio), Dead End Drive-in (1986, dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith), Mad Max (1979, dir. George Miller), Road Games (1981, Richard Franklin), Vanishing Point (1971, dir. Richard C. Sarafian) to name but a few. Tracie Thoms is like the female Samuel L. Jackson, delivering Tarantino’s lines with the same expletive ‘motherfucking’ aplomb. The last action sequence is fantastic reminiscent of the greatest set-pieces recorded onscreen, in the likes of Bullitt (1968, dir. Peter Yates), The French Connection (1971, dir. William Friedkin) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004, dir. Paul Greengrass). New Zealand stuntwoman Zoë Bell plays herself and the sight of her grappling on the bonnet of a white Dodge Challenger is exhilarating to watch and lets face it, Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) may have had stylish neon cinematography, a funky soundtrack and the stoic masculinity of fanboy favourite Ryan Gosling but Death Proof is more exciting and entertaining to watch. The viewer needs to be part of a car chase and Tarantino keeps the camera on top and up close to the action, credit also has to go to the director’s editor, the late great Sally Menke who keeps up the frenetic pace. Yes, by no means is it perfect, it is a dialogue heavy screenplay and QT does flounder somewhat with the womanly repartee but it truly is an enlivened and gratifying female fantasy to watch.