Exciting as it is to think about the possibilities of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez making contemporary variations of exploitation cinema, Grindhouse is more homage than reinvention of schlock. Rodriguez dutifully scratches up the print of his zombie movie Planet Terror, with blips in the soundtrack and missing reels, and Tarantino gives his killer-on-the-road thriller Death Proof freeze-frames, vibrant funk colors, and fetishistic chick-ogling that evokes drive-in movies. Casually mean-spirited and purposefully dumb, Tarantino and Rodriguez treat sex and violence like one big cackling joke. It's disaffected and campy, but unlike a lot of those sleazy exploitation movies that stood the test of time, it lacks any real anger, machismo, or even sleaziness. In other words, it's difficult to invest in anything that's happening beyond regarding it as one big gooey lark.
The two feature films, running back-to-back with a few fake trailers thrown into the mix (with Rob Zombie providing a Nazi She-Wolf sexploitation entry, Eli Roth tossing in a scuzzy slasher flick called Thanksgiving, and Edgar Wright going for a British bit of hysterical psycho-mania in a gothic house). What's interesting about Planet Terror is that it's really just a collection of pulp images cavalierly thrown together: zombies that mutate from pus-and-bubbles flesh wounds into giant mounds of shambling gristly meat; a stripper (Rose McGowan) with a machine gun for a leg; a single-minded sheriff (Michael Biehn) with a 12-gauge shotgun who diligently refuses to accept that a motorcycle driving bad-boy (Freddy Rodríguez) might possibly be an ally in their last stand against evil; and former special effects guru-turned-actor Tom Savini getting ripped apart limb from limb, Dawn of the Dead-style.
Rodriguez coasts along as if being a fanboy were enough reason to make movies. Throughout Planet Terror, I found myself paying less attention to the movie, recollecting the '80s remake of The Blob—which had a similar vibe but was actually invested in its characters—and the careening sense of humor of Night of the Comet or Night of the Creeps, which had zombies in hot pursuit of smart-ass characters that were frustrated in their efforts to go shopping, to the prom, and have a beer or two. Those movies were fast-moving and cheerfully filled with schlock, gore, and a marked intention to keep you absolutely entertained. But part of the entertainment came from empathy, not just from how cool the hero was when he resourcefully used hairspray and a cigarette lighter to make a portable flamethrower against the zombie hordes. Rodriguez certainly has the cool factor down (the machine gun for a leg is a delirious sight gag, and they milk it for all it's worth) but he's never been particularly good at anything other than pumping the screen with a string of gags.
The 90-minute running time keeps it painless, though. It's over with before one really has time to think about how forgettable and pointless it is as a movie. And Rodriguez is thankfully more action-driven than his blabbermouth colleague Tarantino's dialogue-driven meanderings. But while he may have been inspired by the early work of John Carpenter and James Cameron (in the lean, mean low-budget mode of The Terminator), he lacks the visual storytelling chops to make cool images. Instead, he counts on cool effects to do the work for him: a head getting blown clean off and a legion of zombies chopped down like timber by a spinning blade. It's never potent enough to be truly iconic, but at least it's rarely boring.
It's nice to see Kurt Russell returning to his badass B-movie roots, livening up Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof as muscle car-driving psychopath Stuntman Mike. Though he can be counted on to deliver effortlessly good performances, even in the kind of indifferent middlebrow movies made to show on airplanes and long bus rides (Sky High and Miracle), it takes a movie brat like Tarantino to give him a throwback role that reminds viewers of Russell's great personas: nihilistic Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, who didn't give a fuck about your war or your President; maverick pilot R.J. MacReady in The Thing; and blustering blowhard Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China.
With his hair combed in a flashy pompadour and a white scar running down his cheek, Russell plays evil Stuntman Mike as a swaggering, folksy raconteur, casually flirting with his girl victims and smilingly throwing away quotable dialogue that's right up there with the best one-liners of Russell's best characters ("You're gonna have to be getting scared—immediately!" he chuckles with a schoolyard bully's glee). And there's something of an old-school ranch hand in his courting the ladies by saying, "You saw my car, I saw your legs." Even in the universe of Tarantino, which feels more like a self-contained and increasingly self-referential cinephile's mixtape of movies he's absorbed (riffing this time on slasher flicks, redneck car-chase extravaganzas, and women's revenge pictures), Russell feels like a living, breathing human being.
It's become increasingly clear that Tarantino works best when he's cast his favorite icons, whose faces are seared with life experience that he isn't able to muster up on his own, since it appears the only life he had was spent amalgamating movies in a video store. The scenes with Stuntman Mike's victims sitting around coffee shops and bars are grueling to watch, because none of the gorgeous gals feel like real characters but, rather, regurgitating pop-culture sponges. It's unfortunate, because watching these characters talking about movies, or even talking about picking up guys or pot, or their favorite songs, doesn't feel like watching real people shooting the shit, the way the girls did so casually in John Carpenter's Halloween or Brian De Palma's Carrie. As such, we're never endeared to them when Stuntman Mike comes after them in his skull-painted hellmobile, and when some of the girls get brutally destroyed in carefully staged car accidents, we connect more to the graphic image of the stunningly crafted gore than we do to the loss of life.
This all builds to an avenging angel yarn where some of Tarantino's hot chicks decide they want some payback on Stuntman Mike for attempting to ride them off a cliff, and yet when the gals smile at each other and say, "Let's kill him!" I oddly felt bad for the monstrous Mike, if only because Russell's performance was more human, especially as his character degenerates into a shrieking, weeping coward running for his life. When the girls turn into avenging angels, they on the other hand feel more like movie characters whose motivations turned on a dime. Their attitude toward life and death, whether it be their own ("I'm okay!" one of them happily beams right after she's almost been decimated by Mike's muscle car) or Mike's, is so casually flippant, we're denied that sense of righteous rage. Maybe it's a joke on those old drive-in movies, which never gave much thought to life or death either, but somehow the reverent self-referential quality of Tarantino is more offensive than those old grindhouse filmmakers who were in it simply to make a buck.
That said, Tarantino assembles a cast of women who are certainly easy on the eyes, and even though they can't bring any substance to their paper-thin dialogue, or any weight to their casually amoral and disaffected dialogue, they photograph well. Tarantino leeringly aims his camera at their (clothed) tits and asses, and even gives himself a cameo as a bartender who wanders into scenes throwing his arms around the girls and drinking shots with them, but, as a filmmaker, he feels like a little boy who's just entered pubescence. I much prefer Russell's easy manner with the women characters, even when playing a misogynistic killer like Stuntman Mike. When he asks, "Do I frighten you?," it's strangely tender, even as he's moving in for the kill. And he's more self-aware than Tarantino, more open and manly in his flirtations when he tells foxy actress Vanessa Ferlito, "I ain't stalking you, but I never said I wasn't a wolf."