During my years at the university, I was not the most sociable of fellows. One likes to follow the family patterns, and the life of fraternities, beer, and spring breaks was not to be. The one small indulgence that I did allow myself was that of the sensational sort of films that one only found at drive-in theaters in this area of the country. And this weekend I found myself being drawn back to those days once more as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought their homage to such things, a film called “Grindhouse,” to theaters.
Tarantino and Rodriguez provide the full drive-in experience: a double feature complete with previews, house intros, and even an ad for the restaurant next door to the theater. The film is scratched, patched, burned, and missing reels (which helps squeeze the whole double bill into a watchable three and a half hours).
While being a homage to the sensational low-budget films of the seventies, “Grindhouse” still has plenty of modernity: Robert Rodriguez’s wild zombie film that starts the double bill, “Planet Terror,” has all the touches one expects from a modern-day Rodriguez action spectacle. Take his movies “The Faculty,” “Spy Kids,” and “Sin City,” mix well and let them ferment in your head a bit, and one’s imagination can pull up just how far “Planet Terror” goes. The bubbling flesh of the bio-weapon induced zombies is so extreme that it almost ceases to be disturbing.
The good Dr. Watson had a way with appreciating a woman’s beauty in his writing, and Robert Rodriguez seems to do the same for at least one actress in every movie he makes. This time, Rose McGowan gets the full treatment, doing a wonderful dance sequence over the opening credits and even manages to lose a leg without losing her lustre. Also worth mentioning is Marley Shelton, who is a whole lot more fun than they ever gave her the chance to be on “The West Wing.”
But the core of “Grindhouse” is pure fun, and you see it at every turn. The phony previews at the start and middle are hysterical, and Rodriguez staple Danny Trejo gets a wonderful build-up in the preview for a fake “Mex-ploitation” film called “Machete.” Not only funny, the preview with Cheech Marin as Machete’s priest-with-a-gun brother and action scenes galore, actually makes one wish “Machete” was a real movie.
When it’s Quentin Tarantino’s turn for half of the double feature, the pace slows noticeably. In fact, if you are looking for a point in the three-and-a-half-hour movie to visit the bathroom, the “Jungle Julia” segment is your time to go. Tarantino is well-known for his dialogue, but the girl’s night out that starts “Deathproof” tends to go on too long before they finally encounter Stuntman Mike, Kurt Russell’s maniacal stunt driver/serial killer character, and meet their fates. The second half of “Deathproof,” however, is not to be missed.
When Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Rosario Dawson hit the screen in “Deathproof,” one at first expects the same “girl’s night out” scenario as the first half. That starts to change very quickly, for a number of reasons. Zoe Bell is a fresh face on the screen, with a New Zealand accent and way about her that doesn’t seem like just another actress, and there’s a reason for that: she’s a stuntwoman. Her wonderful resume includes everything from “Kill Bill” to “Xena,” and her scenes on the hood of the car in this movie show you just how fearless she is (Tarantino has said in interviews that he filmed them at full speed). Tracie Thoms was lively enough in the short-lived series “Wonder Falls,” and she brings that spunk to this part in a way that almost makes her half of the movie. And Rosario Dawson is, well, Rosario Dawson. And nobody can complain about that.
When these three fireballs encounter Stuntman Mike, the movie takes quite a turn, and you quickly forgive Tarantino his over-talky first half.
All in all, “Grindhouse” is a wonderful movie experience. Not for children, definitely, nor for the easily offended. But for the rest of us . . . a lot of fun.
What Great-grandfather Sherlock would have said: