Story Highlights• "Grindhouse" homage to '70s exploitation/drive-in flicks
• "Planet Terror" portion loaded with action -- perhaps too much
• "Death Proof" portion a slow-building thrill ride
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- When filmmakers talk about how great the movies were back in the 1970s, they're usually thinking about "The Godfather," "Chinatown," or "Dog Day Afternoon."
But when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez wax lyrical about that period, they have something else in mind: Filipino shoot-'em-ups, Italian slasher films, Mexican vigilante movies and Roger Corman girls-behind-bars flicks. This kind of exploitation cheapie would play on the drive-in circuit or in seedy inner-city theaters, promising sleazy thrills and no refunds.
Those days are gone, and "Grindhouse" -- the directors' supercharged attempt to resurrect the illicit B-movie double feature -- will have to play sterile, sanitary multiplexes alongside such respectable mainstream fare as "Wild Hogs," "TMNT" and "300," all of which wear the imprint of exploitation cinema with pride (the biker movie, kung fu picture and gorefest, respectively).
The truth is, the trash movies Tarantino champions have long since gone mainstream, albeit with bigger budgets and watered down for MPAA approval. That goes for "Grindhouse" too, which cost a reported $50 million to produce, and which anyone under the age of 17 can enjoy with an enabling adult in tow.
Still, the dynamic duo do their utmost to transport us back to the good old bad old days: the package includes irresistible faux trailers for Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS" and Eli Roth's seasonal slasher movie "Thanksgiving," among others.
In the first feature, Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" -- a campy contribution to the zombie genre -- the director (who shot on digital) has gone to the trouble of defacing his print, adding the scratches, warp and weave you would expect from beaten-up second-run celluloid. (Tarantino very pointedly shot on film, but has a harder time replicating the effect.) At one key point he even cuts to a "Reel Missing" slide, making for one of the best jokes of the film.
Adolescents of all ages will get a kick out of Rose McGowan's voluptuous one-legged go-go dancer, Cherry, stomping around with a submachine gun stuck into her stump. Apparently she can fire at will, without the bother of manually pulling the trigger. (It's that kind of picture.) She's the linchpin in an unlikely band of survivors battling it out with rampaging flesh-eating mutants in a Tex-Mex border town.
"Planet Terror" certainly gives the audience its money's worth. Unlike most genuine exploitation films, which couldn't afford to muster more than a couple of set-pieces amid wooden acting and long, dull expository stretches, "Planet Terror" is so jam-packed with lurid mayhem it scarcely leaves any breathing room. When the cast does get a chance to sit down and talk, the patter is always parody.
It's fun, for sure. But after 80-some minutes of nonstop carnage, cleavage and cool, the riff begins to ring a little hollow.
To say Tarantino's "Death Proof" represents a change of pace is like saying summer is hotter than winter. For 40 minutes four girls sit and gab: in a car, in a bar, and in another bar. Then something really terrible happens and the movie starts over again: four girls in a car.
If Tarantino wanted to concoct one of the more audacious false starts in the movies -- and we can be sure that he did -- he has succeeded in spades. Whether it had to be quite such an arid dry run is another question entirely -- and coming on the bottom half of the bill probably hasn't done "Death Proof" any favors in this regard.
But Tarantino is playing the long game. Yes, the director's distinctive pop talk frequently veers into self-parody, and a couple of wobbly performances (including the second egregious cameo of the night from the man himself) only make things worse.
But all this downtime finally pays off in an old-school car chase that will have you clinging on to whoever's sitting next to you for dear life -- not just because the stunt work is breathtaking (which it is) but because after hanging out with the protagonist, stuntwoman Zoe Bell, we actually care whether or not she breaks her neck. (And kudos to Kurt Russell for his reprisal of a classic B-movie wacko ... with a deliberate nod to "Escape from New York's" Snake Plissken.)
Caring about consequences make all the difference between empty pastiche and what we might call, for old time's sake, "a real movie." Rodriguez never stops with the action, but Tarantino delivers the goods. And so, finally, does "Grindhouse."
"Grindhouse" runs 192 minutes and is rated R. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Rose McGowan fires away in the "Planet Terror" portion of "Grindhouse."
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