Grindhouse a grind

It’s been 15 years since Reservoir Dogs sliced into the American psyche like a straight-razor into an ear. Quentin Tarantino continues to carve his niche with pop-culture homages to the films of his youth, while Robert Rodriguez champions bigger bangs in movies with ever-increasing budgets. Now, with Grindhouse, the two auteurs and exploitation fans team up for a nostalgic double-feature that shoves aside story to showcase style. And for Rodriguez and Tarantino, it’s always been all about style.

The two writer/directors have created a one-two punch of blood-soaked zombie-rific, car-chase-tacular movies. The trouble is, they can’t decide whether to hold onto their artistic filmmaker cred or completely surrender to the gleeful revelry of all things bloody and gruesome. Both movies–Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof­–miss the big red “X”scrawled on the chest of an American public overdosing on gore porn.

In Planet Terror, Rodriguez does what he does best: blows things up, makes blood spurt, tumors ooze and ensures semi-automatic rifles never lose their ammo. Rodriguez leaves realism in the dust, trailing behind a Chopper that’s charging into the zombie-infested surreal. He recalls classic monster flicks and his own From Dusk ‘Till Dawn in the story of a small town overrun by the “infected,” reveling in double-fisted machine guns and insinuations of torture that provoke squirms and nervous guffaws. Rose McGowan finally finds her calling as a hobbling joke–an amputee with a gun for a leg–and the rest of the characters connect only enough to justify sex scenes and fill in plot holes. Packed full of ‘hey-I-saw-that-in-Army-of-Darkness‘ moments, all the bullets in Planet Terror‘s magazine hit the targets of an action-packed exploitation film.

While Rodriguez shoots from a wide angle, Tarantino focuses on his characters. Once again, the man who made a hitman’s death tragic portrays his criminal, a mass-murdering car fiend, at a human level with his characteristic, down-to-earth dialogue. It takes a talented director to make all his bad guys look so good.

Kurt Russell follows in the footsteps of Keitel, Travolta and Willis, bringing an empathic edge to a lonely, washed-up stunt car driver trying to pick up women in a bar. Tarantino offers perspective on the archetype of a psychopathic killer whose motives matter less than his methods. But while the writer captures the nuances and speech patterns of amateur criminals, kung-fu assassins and coke-head hitmen with snappy, pop-culture-laden dialogue, he can’t bring that same vivacity to a circle of young women sitting around a coffee shop. His focus on the interactions of two groups of mid-’20s women seems misplaced, as if he wrote the dialogue for male characters, extricated half the superlatives and switched genders. The focus and strength of Death Proof should be the car chase scenes, but after watching zombies attack a small town in Rodriguez’s half, the measly car is anti-climatic.

Both directors steal from their predecessors, but while this thievery had come with a glee and a reverence in the past, both characteristics are missing from Grindhouse. Both Tarantino and Rodriguez have succeeded in walking the line between indulgence and homage, but Grindhouse tips them over the edge, so that instead of a new take on something that’s been done before, both films serve as reminders that someone else got there first.

The fake previews that break up the two pieces and the gritty quality of the film itself are both hallmarks of the badass-chic of the piece: its main redeeming quality. The film’s psychedelic title sequences proclaiming “Prevues of Coming Attractions” recall the style at the height of the exploitation era. Each film also loses segments to “missing reels,” and both include ostentatiously bad edits to reflect the low production values of the B-movie era–a self-effacing nod to Rodriguez himself, who prides himself on his “Mariachi-style” budget films.

But it’s the four trailers for fictitious horror movies that steal the show from the two features. Rodriguez’s Machete kicks off the campy previews with a vigilante desperado and a shotgun-toting priest; Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving plays on teenage slasher flicks; Edgar Wright’s Don’t is more a mockery of horror show previews than a stab at the movie it’s promoting; and Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS pushes the furry SM a bit far. As in the old double-features, the trailers are better than the actual movies, and the American icons’ style-over-substance tack triumphs in these smaller doses.

Tarantino and Rodriguez get distracted by their excitement in recreating a nostalgic experience, and the four short clips steal the show from the two ultimately blase features. Both directors have beat themselves at their own game, and their stories suffer for it.

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