Hello all. This week, we go back to the originally intended format of this column – to discuss and contrast two pieces of pop culture, one of which has or will achieve blockbuster status (the numbers) and another which runs along a similar vein but may be or may have been a bit under the radar at the time of its release (the inspiration).
I’ve been talking about talking about fast cars for a few editions now, always with the intent of getting back to the above and discussing two of my guiltier pleasures when it comes to things that go zoom. So, without further ado, let’s get to it…this week we’ll be taking a look at the numbers of Fast 6 (as well as giving a special nod to overall franchise numbers) and the inspiration of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.
The Numbers – Fast 6 (and the whole Fast and Furious/2 Fast/2 Drifty Franchise)
I’m not quite sure what it is with these Fast and Furious movies, but I gotta admit: I’m hooked. It all started in 2001 with an undercover cop (Brian O’ Conner, played by Paul Walker), a not-so-secret-anymore street racing subculture, and a guy named Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who heads one of the best driving-for-crime crews ever assembled (at that time, at least; it eventually turns out that a former cop would add even more expertise to the Fast and Furious gang in subsequent installments). Over the course of six movies, we’ve lost Vin Diesel for a little bit, headed to Tokyo to drift, watched Dom show up again, witnessed crew members be slain only to resurrect as amnesiacs, had Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson added to spice up the proceedings, etc. etc. And without fail, without reason or consequences save for a ton of box office cash, the series as a whole has worked. Is it me, or do these films actually get better the longer the franchise extends itself? (Hint: numberology — misspelled on purpose — tells me that it’s not just me.)
Take Fast 6, the latest crazy installment. It’s not overly complicated; there’s a MacGuffin, a promise of amnesty for that whole “dragging a bank vault through Rio and pocketing the cash” thing, lots of quotes about not forgetting your family, even when they’ve turned their back on you, and oh yeah A CAR BURSTING THROUGH THE NOSE OF AN EXPLODING PLANE. Highbrow entertainment, there films are not. But they work. They work because you don’t need a ton of backstory for each gig, as the previous films have set that particular stage to the point where you know these folks will endure any and all sorts of wacky hijinks for the sake of each other. And viewers care about this bond that’s been established…for some reason, the cornier Toretto sounds, the more you buy into his vision of familial bonds. And adding The Rock to the series was inspired – there’s nothing better than the Rock versus Diesel fight of part 5 except perhaps for the tag team wrestling moves they employ in part 6. Seriously, that set up for the running/jumping clothesline off the shoulders – on a moving cargo plane, no less – was pretty awesome.
And the end? My goodness, the end! Not the actual end, but the little bit of epilogue where no other than The Transporter is set up to be Fast 7’s big bad. Jason Statham may not always get the best action roles in Hollywood, but he always does the best with what he’s given, even if many of his characters are often derivative. (Given that statement, it makes even more sense that he’s going to involved in another driving/racing/crime type movie, huh?) But Statham playing off The Rock and Dominic Toretto’s crew in the next installment? That’s some good casting right there. I saw Fast 6 quite a while after release and the only thing that dulled my excitement about this geek-out was that I accidentally spoiled myself going in. So, I only had goose bumps, instead of my goose bumps also having goose bumps, when Statham called up Dom to basically say, and I summarize, “Watch out. Here I come.”
My rhetoric here re: the Fast and Furious series may be a bit over the top, but that’s to be expected given the topic at hand. Simply put, I love this series for the way it goes about itself; no pretensions, no misgivings about what’s being accomplished up on the screen: crazy vehicular action with no regards to reality or physics, good old-fashioned physical stunt work, and actors rising above both their and their characters as-written limitations to make a viewer actually root for them to succeed, to keep the family/crew intact until the next guaranteed-to-be crazier-than-previous adventure. And most importantly: these movies are plain old ( if slightly dumb) fun.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Check the numbers: according to Box Office Mojo, Fast 6 has accumulated an impressive $235.5M domestic and $460M foreign in ticket sales, making its total box office take a little over $695M. Not bad for the sixth film in a series; coincidentally, Fast 6 is the highest grossing film in the franchise (so far). From an overall perspective, the franchise as a whole has pulled in almost $2.3 billion dollars to date. The movies and ticket sales have gotten better with each installment (save that little bit of juxtaposing with 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift), which means they’ll keep reaching for the moon until this whole thing either sputters out or goes out with a ‘nuke ‘em from orbit’ type explosion; either way, these numbers portend continued great entertainment returns for fans of the series (like me).
Inspiration – Death Proof
Death Proof, on the other hand, only has two full scenes of vehicular madness, but my oh my, they are doozies. Before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about the perception that this Tarantino flick is a bit of a yawner.
It’s impossible to discuss Death Proof without acknowledging the elephant in the room: yes, it is a very talky picture. On its own this could be seen as detrimental enough, but Tarantino’s flick was released as part of the Grindhouse double feature alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Talk about a complete 180…in Terror, you’ve got nothing but blood, guts, action and a stripper with a heart of gold…and a machine gun leg. And in Death Proof, for veeeerry long stretches of time, the female protagonists do nothing but talk. At great length. But to me, that’s not a drawback at all. In fact, it’s part of the inspiration.
Who but Tarantino could write such dialogue and captivate with characterization before throwing these girls into the Mike the Stuntman mixer? Many viewers bemoaned Death Proof, saying that in talking so much, the film wasn’t really saying anything at all. Others complained about long expository sequences with nothing but inane banter. But that’s the whole point! These girls were out to have a good time, living life and talking like we all do with friends about the most inane of BS, especially over drinks. Then they meet up with a very unique serial killer with a method so mad it could only work in a grindhouse film. Never before had I seen a villain use a stunt car to dispatch his victims in such a manner. Sadistic? Perhaps. Misogynistic? Maybe slightly, and even that’s up for debate, but if at all evident, only for the first half of the film. See, that’s also kinda the point of Death Proof; by the time the finale plays out, you internalize the apt and powerful message “They are women, hear them roar!” as the nacho-slurping Mike is reduced to nothing more than the sniveling little wimp hiding within a Chevy Nova that he is. The fact that an actual stuntwoman — Zoe Bell, who was The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) stunt double for the Kill Bill movies — ends up being one of his foils is the cherry on top of the bloody sundae. Reduced to its basest of elements, Death Proof is a slasher flick that pays homage to those that came before it in a unique and satisfying manner, carrying on the tradition of female powers of good triumphing over the forces of evil.
Death Proof is widely regarded as Tarantino’s weakest film, a sentiment the director has hinted at sharing. As a whole, Grindhouse was a disappointment at the box office, earning only $25M on a production budget of $63M. Upon home release, Grindhouse was (originally) split into two separate features, with Death Proof bringing in about $27M in 2007 DVD sales. (Planet Terror also brought in about $27M in DVD sales, which means that eventually Grindhouse as a whole did manage to break even with a bit of spare coinage. Plus it inspired such fare as Machete and hopefully, eventually, that Thanksgiving slasher flick from Eli Roth.) It’s worth noting that the DVD release of Death Proof –the one that this Renegade Columnist owns, and how I first viewed the film because I was not lucky enough to live in a Grindhouse theatrical release market at the time – was an extended cut, which means that yes, viewers would have more exposition to potentially roll their eyes at. But to me, it’s the definitive version because of the long setup and huge payoff not only in the two major car action sequences (practical effects!!!) but also Mike the Stuntman’s comeuppance. If you are so inspired, I suggest you check it out, for its uniqueness and the daring, almost maddening courage Tarantino displayed in bringing his vision to fruition, no matter his ultimate feelings about the final product.
P.S. – When casting Mike the Stuntman, Tarantino reached out to a number of stars, including but not limited to John Malkovich, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis (who ended up in Planet Terror), Mickey Rourke, and John Travolta. But I’m so, so glad that Kurt Russell ended up in the role – he’s the perfect mix of slimy, cowardly and badass villain. He’s also one of my favorite actors, especially when collaborating with John Carpenter, forever and ever amen. Like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar, Russell’s Mike the Stuntman is not apologetic until he’s caught taking a bite, spewing crocodile tears and chocolate chip fragments in an effort to talk his way out of being punished. It’s too often we forget that Russell is an actor to be treasured, and it’s too bad a lot of folks seem to have missed his stellar turn in Death Proof.
Thanks for reading. Hope to see you all next week!