Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson
Death Proof may be the least, and the least loved, of Quentin Tarantino's features as a director, but it's obvious in every frame of the film that he had a blast making it. The joy of creation that shines through it is enough to make much of Death Proof entertaining as hell, although there are stretches that can be frustrating as hell, too, with Tarantino's customary self-indulgence feeling more draggy than exhilarating. In comparison to the director's other works this is a trifle of a film, but this slick little genre piece, which was part of a collaborative double feature experiment with director Robert Rodriguez, is a fun diversion that still manages to be more artful than a lot of what comes and goes from the cineplex on any given weekend.
Death Proof unfolds in two parts. The first part involves three friends - radio DJ "Jungle" Julia (Sydney Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) - going out to celebrate one of their birthdays before heading up to a vacation house for the remainder of the weekend. Early on in their evening Arlene notices a black car seemingly trailing them and has a bad feeling, but shrugs it off when the car moves on, only to have the feeling return when she realizes that the car is parked outside the bar where she and her friends are closing out their evening. The car belongs to "Stuntman" Mike (Kurt Russell), who doesn't immediately approach Arlene and her crew but instead hangs at the bar and strikes up a conversation with Pam (Rose McGowan) after she announces to the bartender that she's going to need a ride home. As the evening carries on, Stuntman Mike finally approaches the trio of women, who have been joined by another friend as well as some men whose aim is to get an invite to the girl's only weekend, and in their drunken state they don't seem to pick up on the undertone of menace that marks his outwardly affable manner. When the girls depart for the getaway, Stuntman Mike offers Pam a ride home, informing her that his car, which has been outfitted for stunt driving, is "death proof." Unfortunately for Pam, and several others, the car is only death proof for the driver and the driver is a maniac.
The second part takes place a little over a year later, after Stuntman Mike has fully recovered from the injuries sustained in part one and put his death proof car back in working order, and involves three friends who are working together on a film - stuntwoman Kim (Tracie Thomas), makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) - and a fourth friend who joins them, stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself). When they go out to eat, Zoe reveals the secret reason for her visit, which is that she's seen an ad in the local paper for a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, the exact same type of car from the film Vanishing Point, as she and Kim excitedly explain to Lee and Abernathy, and she wants to take it for a test drive. The girls agree to go with her to have a look at the car, but before they take it out for a drive, Zoe reveals another secret to Kim: she wants them to use the car to play "Ship's Mast," with Zoe riding on the hood, holding on with the help of nothing more than a pair of belts tied to the front doors. Kim is reluctant but quickly talked into it and after leaving Lee behind as collateral for the car owner, Kim, Zoe and Abernathy take off, unaware as they begin playing Ship's Mast that Stuntman Mike has been watching them and is about to seize his opportunity for attack.
Running at 114 minutes (not counting the fake trailers which appear before the start of the film proper), Death Proof is one of Tarantino's shorter films (only Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 have shorter running times), but doesn't feel quite as lean as it ought to. This is particularly true of the first part of the film, which is less focused on action than the second and spends a fair amount of time simply watching its characters shoot the shit. This, of course, is an essential part of any Tarantino film, as his love of dialogue and of listening to characters talk is one of the primary features of his style. The problem with the first part of the film is that the trio of principle characters in it aren't particularly interesting, nor do the three actresses have the sort of chemistry together that can make the dialogue pop. If you think about the most famous "random" conversations from Tarantino's films, the delightful thing about those scenes is not just the dialogue, but how the characters interact and the actors play off each other. There's a flatness to the interactions in the first part that make the "sitting around, talking" scenes feel somewhat tedious (in fairness to the actors, this isn't simply a performance problem, but an issue of the scenes running several beats too long as well) and that makes the first part of the film almost boring.
The second part makes up for the first, however, as the interaction between the friends in that section has a more natural feel and flow to it, and the characters have a greater sense of agency and purpose. The two big chase scenes in the film, the first where Stuntman Mike launches his attack while Zoe is riding on the roof of the Dodge Challenger, and the second when the women flip the script and begin chasing him, are excellent pieces of directorial craftsmanship. Thematically, while the first section is a bit lacking when considered on its own, it is nevertheless valuable to the film as a whole because it shows the depths of Stuntman Mike's sadism, which in turn makes the turnaround, where Stuntman Mike is reduced to a sniveling mess by Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy, all the more satisfying. To my mind, the first part becomes worth it after the fact simply because it so perfectly sets up the second part and the second part is so awesome in its intensity and skill and dark comedy. I would be surprised to learn that Death Proof is anyone's favorite Tarantino movie, but it still proves that even "lesser" Tarantino remains pretty damn good.