Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The latest Fast & Furious movie has been pushed back a full year, so why not cope with its absence by checking out some other movies with car chases in them?
There were cars in Quentin Tarantino movies before Death Proof, pieces of Americana like any others littering the filmmaker’s pop culture-damaged world: objects for the camera to fawn over or render into a punchline; another place for smartass hoods to shoot the shit and each other. But none inspired an exchange like this, one of the few conversational gems hidden within the filmmaker’s clunkiest script:
Stuntman Mike: Do I frighten you? Is it my scar?
Arlene: It’s your car.
That line got a lot of play in advertising for Grindhouse, Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature stab at making the type of exploitation films they’d previously dressed up as unlikely awards contenders and real-deal Hollywood blockbusters. Which makes sense, because if there’s one place where the charmingly flawed (and intentionally beat-up) Grindhouse hits all its marks, it’s the trailers, the high-octane shorts from fellow acolytes of celluloid sleaze that, theoretically, are more entertaining than the fake movies they’re advertising. (A theory borne out by the real movies some inspired.) There wasn’t exactly a bait and switch going on with Death Proof, the Tarantino side of the twofer, but the easiest version of it to track down—the “extended and unrated” cut that’s a few minutes shorter than the one that screened as a stand-alone entry at Cannes in 2007—inspires fireworks-factory impatience. It’s like if the Vincent Vega-Mia Wallace chapter of Pulp Fiction were an hour and a half of dicking around at Jack Rabbit Slim’s followed by 22 minutes of the adrenaline shot to the heart.
Death Proof gets right to the point in at least one respect: cars are fucking terrifying. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) prowls around the perimeter of the film in jet-black machines that growl like jungle cats, the first of which is emblazoned with a skull and lightning bolts. With this “100% death proof” weapon of choice, he tears the movie in two in an act of Psycho-esque misdirection. Steel crunches, glass shatters, and the special makeup effects team led by wizard of gore Greg Nicotero spills prosthetics across a darkened Texan highway. It’s a startlingly tactile depiction of what Earl McGraw (the Tarantino “movie universe” lawman played by the late Michael Parks) sums up in another few-and-far-between Death Proof pearl: “Two tons of metal, 200 miles an hour, flesh and bone, and plain ol’ Newton.” Visceral stuff, even for a horror movie—and that’s not even the part where a real person clings to the real hood of a real car that keeps bumping up against another real vehicle at really high velocities.
The only reasons to watch Death Proof without the full Grindhouse accoutrements (which really took their time coming to Blu-ray—hooting and hollering audience not included) are in the white-knuckle pair of car chases that make up its climax. The particulars aren’t necessary, but here they are anyway: Homicidal misogynist Mike is stalking a second quartet of women in a second state, one of whom is also a stunt performer, Zoë Bell (playing herself). Zoë arrives in rural Tennessee with the goal of 1) test-driving a white, 1970 Dodge Challenger like the one from Vanishing Point, and 2) playing a game she calls “ship’s mast,” the very name of which raises objections from fellow daredevil Kim (Tracie Thoms). Bell’s giddiness at riding on the outside of the car is infectious, but so is her fear once Mike starts ramming the Challenger from behind. In a sequence edited for maximum nail biting, the screams and the engines grow louder as Bell’s grip on the moving vehicle looks more and more tenuous. The few seconds of footage where the camera hovers just above her as the road zips by a few feet below are scary as shit.
Bell really sells it, despite the fact that her job usually involves staying in control and reducing risk for movie moments like these—less like a ship’s mast, more like the valiant jouster she emulates on the way to turning the tables on Mike. This tribute to the craft and history of stunts is Death Proof’s contribution to the informal film education that stretches across the Tarantino filmography. The cops facetiously compare Mike to the protagonists of Hooper and Death Race 2000; the killer’s calling card is a hood ornament like the one perched on Kris Kristofferson’s big rig in Convoy. Multiple generations of celebrated stunt performers take the wheels during the chases, and Mike’s big supervillain speech to Pam (Rose McGowan) doubles as an explanation of how Death Proof avoided any real-life fatalities. (This Matt Singer essay delivers the definitive reading of the parallels between Death Proof and the near-fatal accident that occurred on the set of Tarantino and Bell’s prior team-up.)
Death Proof takes stunt people and their work seriously, and views the tools of their trade with a mixture of wonder and alarm. The cars in the movie are talismans, giving Mike his vile power, and drawing Zoë all the way from the other side of the world. They shred a face and cheekily demolish another double bill of mid-’00s spoofs and salutes to bygone cinematic grime; they defy Plain Ol’ Newton and the Grim Reaper. You don’t need to check the grosses to know that Grindhouse stalled out at the box office—the masses who remain unafraid of getting in a car is proof enough.