Grindhouse

Quentin Tarantino is ruining American movies. Can we admit it yet? If Robert Rodriguez knows what’s good for him—and for the art of filmmaking—he’ll dissolve his professional partnership with Tarantino immediately. As the writer-directors’ tag-teamed double feature Grindhouse makes clear, Tarantino is only dragging Rodriguez down.

That’s saying something, given how deliberately debased the material already is. In case you hadn’t heard, Grindhouse sets out to evoke the garish, gory titillations of decades past—those tawdry movie subgenres best characterized by the –xploitation suffix—on which these two filmmakers were weaned. Sure, it’s kinda missing the point to take critical aim at affectedly skuzzy retro B-movie trash, but that’s no excuse for half of this movie to suck.

Now, your friends may tell you that Death Proof, the Tarantino-made portion of Grindhouse, is the superior portion. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Just don’t say you weren’t warned when mug shots of those same friends show up on the news after some hideously demeaning white-trashy criminal rampage. They always seemed so nice and harmless, right?

No, the better piece is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, mostly because it has some perspective — it was made by trying to have fun instead of trying to be cool. Here, in a frenzy of filmic homage to George Romero, John Carpenter, Dario Argento and whoever else, is a deliciously stupid and disgusting little ditty of the living dead. One night at the all-but-abandoned military base in a small Texas town, a loosed biochemical weapon turns people into marauding, pustule-infested zombies. They face a rag-tag resistance led by the earnestly soul-patched and sandpaper-voiced Freddy Rodriguez, who epitomizes the movie’s hilariously humorless tone.

There are also good scenery-chewing parts for Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin and Michael Biehn, and a notable appendage-chewing part for Rose McGowan, among other rampant grotesqueries. The music, the cutting and the photography are all by the filmmaker, and all of a sleazy piece. Planet Terror drags sometimes, but stays light and genuinely funny and gets progressively more enjoyable.

Still, it can’t make up for the dull thud of Death Proof, Tarantino’s “subversive” nod to older movies of muscle-car psychos and doomed cheerleaderish chicks, which stays heavy and genuinely unfunny and gets progressively more insufferable.

By some accounts, sure, it’s nimble. Watch how oil-slickly Tarantino welds together his most aggressive phobias—of women, minorities, intelligent conversation, dramatization. Watch how assiduously he fashions Sidney Poitier’s daughter into a refined fetish object (that’s one of his ways of aping an investment in character; the other is by spewing lots of empty, self-delighted dialogue) and then so ruthlessly destroys it. And watch how he tries to play this hormonal temper tantrum off as a shrewd narrative turn. It’s supposed to encourage your demand for the movie’s version of justice—which means, basically, giving you a hard-on for grisly three-girls-on-a-guy revenge.

The guy is Kurt Russell, as a charmer and a harmer named Stuntman Mike, who’s good for what the movie asks of him, which is to be its fulcrum. The avenging girls are Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and Zoë Bell. The latter was Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill stunt double and here, as a stuntwoman named Zoë, she too is good for what the movie asks, which is to perform a stunt. Yes, it’s a grind, all right.

Where Rodriguez has made a cheaply perfumed valentine to his beloved genre schlock, Tarantino’s picture exudes the stale, loveless air of a stalker’s shrine. Yet it should satisfy the certain set of fanboys so aesthetically illiterate that low standards are the only thing for which they have high standards. People still want to call Tarantino a radical and a visionary, but Death Proof is so bloated with complacency it’s downright bourgeois. It was lame enough when he couldn’t resist quoting other filmmakers, but here Tarantino takes pains to quote himself, and that’s just embarrassing.

It’s also still plenty cringe-inducing to watch how he forces his puny, phony jive into black actresses’ mouths, and worse to see how willingly — even cravenly — they take it. How many “muthafuckas” and “nigga pleases” must young Thoms be made to bray before she’s allowed to register as more than a mere supporting player? She’s right to want out from Dawson’s shadow, but she got bamboozled. This dude’s no anointing visionary. He’s just sort of a spoiled sick fuck, the likes of which a superior filmmaker — Martin Scorsese, say — might once have made a movie about. Thirty years ago, anyway.