Underrated#2: Death Proof

Apparently, plenty of people still don’t “get” Death Proof.
Probably because there’s nothing to “get”.

Death Proof
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Original Release Date: 6 April 2007Part of ILT’s Underrated# series.

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“Is Death Proof really underrated?”, I hear you ask. On the surface it doesn’t appear to be. Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 vehicular homicide-based slasher homage – one half of Grindhouse, alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – has certainly had its fair share of mixed reviews over the past ten years or so. However, the film’s rating across the usual suspect review sites, such as IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic, averages out at about 70%, which – although I personally would go a little higher – is probably about fair.

Having said that, when one digs a little deeper into the individual negative comments associated with the picture on each of these sites, there appears to be plenty of ill-conceived opinions that reach from dull, detached reviews citing elongated dialogue, all the way down to the standard bizarre Tarantino hatred. Such blathering doesn’t stem solely from keyboard warriors either – a fair few critics get in on the act too. And it doesn’t end there. Plenty of folks I’ve debated with in the flesh claim to have failed to “get” Death Proof, to the extent where they look baffled simply talking about it. To round it all off, even ol’ Quentin himself – despite an obvious love affair with the production while both making and promoting it – subsequently claimed back in late 2012 that:

Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? — so if that’s the worst I ever get, I’m good. But I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned.

Taken solely in the context of his legacy, such a quote isn’t too damning. Sure, in the spur of the moment Tarantino has been known to lose control of his tongue now and then, and since the dawn of time anyone responsible for creating anything artistic inevitably looks back on some of their earlier work with a degree of loathing, but his choice of language here seems unusually harsh. Maybe he wanted to impress the roundtable of Oscar-nominated directors to whom he was addressing, but the dreamy presence of Ben Affleck made him over do it slightly.


So, what’s my point? Well, in my mind, such opinions are proof that numerous aspects of Death Proof are still very much underrated by many people. Not necessarily because of the out and out “quality” of said aspects from the perspective of traditional filmmaking, rather because they have simply been misinterpreted and/or simply under-appreciated. This is of course an exercise in trivial futility, but, as I currently have a lot of time on my hands, and a lot of time for this picture, I’d be a pretty lousy no-mark movie critic if I didn’t present my (admittedly biased) case by way of publishing an article on my no-mark blog.

I mean, c’mon, when it comes to Death Proof, there’s just so darn much to like about it…

The Dialogue

This appears to be the main gripe with Death Proof out there in internet land. “Boring”, “overly expositional”, “tedious”, and “pointless” seems to be the general vibe. Not for me. It’s hardly Pulp Fiction, there’s no denying that, but it doesn’t try to be. Indeed, while the characters’ conversations range from realistic to ridiculous, during a recent re-watch I struggled to pinpoint an exchange worthy of being labelled, “boring”. Indeed, the sparring between our two groups of leading ladies and the fantastically awful Stuntman Mike flows with a sort of seamlessly twisted, yet easy going wit throughout. Does anyone really use some of the phrases or verbal mannerisms uttered? Probably not. Is there moments of pull-your-head-back-in-grimacing-cringe? Most certainly. After all, this is a deliberately (and obviously) dumb exploitation homage written by a video store nerd. Embrace it.

The Action

Naturally, there isn’t a great deal of Yelp-style movie critics who have gone so far as to take a pop at the action in Death Proof. Personally, I feel the two major action set pieces deserve all the praise they can get, so here’s some more. During a decade of increasing overwhelmingly poor CGI in Hollywood action, Tarantino bucked the trend with consecutive high-profile releases that incorporated various different aspects of brutal old school cinematic stunt work. While Kill Bill demonstrated Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-Ping’s masterful fight sequence techniques, Death Proof gave us the finest example of pure vehicular stunt action since 1998’s Ronin. The head on collision that wipes out the ladies in Austin, Texas is a multi-angle smash-up both executed and presented with gut-wrenching aplomb. Then there’s the finale. A throwback to the dirty-cool muscle car movies of yesteryear, the lengthy car chase depicts not only a welcome dose of high-octane stunt driving (and death-defying hood riding by Zoë Bell), as Mike’s 1969 Charger hounds the girls’ 1970 Challenger, but also further evidence of Tarantino’s underrated action direction and, in this case, cinematography. The decisive, highly amusing final beatdown of Mike was made all the more enjoyable in hindsight by a confused lad I knew at uni, who, upon seeing the film, furrowed his brow and explained that one of the reasons he didn’t like it was because “out of nowhere, them three birds were all suddenly kung-fu experts”. See what I’m getting at here?

The Cast

More often than not, Tarantino gets his actors spot on. Not always (himself, Eli Roth), but most of the time. Death Proof follows essentially the same pattern. Even his cringiest of the cringe selections this time around (himself, Eli Roth) work just fine due to the film’s cheesy nature. Kurt Russell became Stuntman Mike McKay after numerous potentials failed to commit, but it’s a classic turn from a cult 80s action hero; sleazing and whining his way through multiple sexually-influenced murders, all the time maintaining a remarkably good looking quiff and the wryest of smirks. It’s not often a single male lead is accompanied by eight female counterparts, but Stuntman Mike’s victims and eventual vengeance seekers are a terrific bunch, born from the same brand of foxy, sharp-tongued (anti) heroine slash general unknown actress frequently employed in Tarantino’s writing and casting. Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, and Tracie Thoms standout, while Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill stunt double, Zoë Bell, pulls out all the stops on the stunt front in her first leading role. Thoms’ fiery Kim is generally the primary target of negativity amongst cyberspace’s finest when it comes to the performances, but thankfully anyone over the age of five can decipher and ignore the internet’s own special brand of thinly-veiled, double-barrelled sexism slash racism. Yes, even the nerd tree has a few rotten apples.

The Soundtrack

He wears a red bandaaannna,
Plays a cool piaaannno,
On the honky-tonk,
Down in Mexico.

Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (and Pete).

Riot in Thunder Alley.

Yeah, it’s ace.

Kurt Russell smile Death proof

The “Grindhouse” Effect

This is where Death Proof (and Grindhouse in general) appears to have really gone over the head of our collective naysayers. Many people – including fans of Tarantino’s previous work – seem to have taken the whole thing far too seriously. Countless references are made to the fact that it’s an exploitation flick paying homage to other exploitation flicks, namely those of the gearhead persuasion. What’s not to like about the scruffy, skipping prints, “missing reels”, and alternative titles? If anything, Tarantino and Rodriguez should be applauded for giving a new generation a glimpse into the darker, dirtier side of America’s movie history. Plus, it’s Tarantino – I refuse to believe that those who actually bother to write angry anonymous reviews on Metacritic et al. aren’t aware of his reputation. The film was intended to be twenty-odd minutes shorter and released worldwide as a grindhouse/dive theatre-type double header, along with Planet Terror. Unfortunately, the concept fell flat in its American homeland, with some leaving after the first feature without realising there was a second, and many staying away completely. Box-office returns bombed and the features were eventually split up and released separately overseas, which was how I first witnessed them in the UK. Not that such an experience was completely without merit. After all, one of the scenes originally chopped was the lap dance sequence…
– – –
Death Proof’s laidback style and good-time-horror vibe means it’ll forever be a whole lot of fun and ideal lazy Sunday viewing. In fact, when putting it up against the rest of Tarantino’s filmography; given the choice I reckon I’d choose it over, say, Django Unchained – the quasi-serious thematic nature and erratic quality of which fails to overtake the simplistic consistency of Death Proof. To summarise; if you’re still struggling with any of the above…lighten up. Trust me – and this is something I have to remind myself of – every now and then it’s worth descending from your cinematic high horse, while leaving your brain firmly at the summit.

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