Friday, May 6, 2016

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) - ***

Rated R for strong violence and gore, language and nudity.
Running time: 108 min.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are movie fanboys at heart, that much is widely known. Tarantino's inspirations have always been drawn from his viewing experiences from his younger days, while Rodriguez has devised an entire television network (El Rey) dedicated to cult favorites. From Dusk Till Dawn was crafted by fanboys who wanted to capture the same audience that they are a part of. The first two-thirds of the film was crafted as a crime thriller, while the last third of the film pulls the rug out from under you, changes gears and becomes a wicked gorefest. How one feels about it depends on your own sense of humor and taste.

The movie starts off as a crime thriller road movie. We get a fantastic cold open with Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a character that will go on to appear in several other Tarantino and Rodriguez films. The dialogue uttered by Earl here is just flush with character, and it's easy to see why this character, or similar versions of him, has crossed universes into other films. Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) are on the run with a lot of money and a lot of cops searching for them. Richie has busted Seth out of prison, and they have left a trail of blood and bodies along the way, which the TV reporter is all too proud to provide a body count for. They have taken a bank teller hostage and have holed up in a roach motel until they can make a clean getaway. Richie is a bit of a psychopath and is left alone with the teller, which leads to a scene that provides only glimpses of the teller's fate. Rodriguez would rather provide glimpses rather than the whole picture because this movie is about the ride and can't get bogged down in grim details or the tone would change.

Seth and Richie find a preacher named Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his two kids, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), in their RV and decide that they need hostages in order to make it to Mexico. Jacob has decided to leave the church after the death of his wife and is not in a good place with God right now. He agrees to take the fugitives to the border as Seth gives him his word that they will not be hurt. At this point, the character of Seth starts to become sympathetic, as George Clooney's natural charm and charisma has settled in. Tarantino's Richie is still a pschopathic scumbag, however, even to the point where his own brother knocks him out to shut him up. Cheech Marin makes an appearance in the movie; or should I say, several appearances as three different characters, showing just how chamelon-like he has become later in his career. 

The crew makes it across the border as they pull into the Tittie Twister, a bar for wayward bikers and truckers. Rodriguez does a great job here of bringing the story to an even seedier place that it had been previously. We run into b-movie stalwarts Fred Williamson, Tom Savini and Danny Trejo here, and they seem to be right at home in this setting. It is here that a camaraderie begins between Seth, Jacob and the kids, as Tarantino's script continues to do things to make the previously greasy Seth into the sympathetic character he needs to be when we get that change in tone. That change in tone comes in a hurry too. Before we know it, our hostage/crime drama has unfolded into a zany, hectic, gory horror film with scenes that alternate between comedy and over-the-top mayhem. 

For some viewers, the shift in gears may be unwelcome and turn them off the film entirely. However, the shift works, and the reason why it works is because of the setting change, the way that Rodriguez has kept the violence and humor constantly mixed throughout, and the way George Clooney turned the character Seth from a potentially vicious criminal to a guy who had to suddenly fight for his life like everyone else in the bar. Watching him form a bond with his hostages made him likeable and it was easy to root for him in the midst of all the wackiness going on around him. 

Tarantino's script was rife with his usual peppery and distinct dialogue with tidbits about everything from religion to how movies teach us to deal with the undead. Rodriguez never did let the chaos get out of control, and added some wild death scenes that somehow seemed an appropriate match for the tone. The makeup and special effects aided these scenes adequately. This is not a perfect film but what was accomplished was the exact type of film that Tarantino and Rodriguez gleefully enjoyed watching back in the days of VHS and drive-in theatres.

From Dusk Till Dawn is two-thirds tense thriller and one-third weird wild rollercoaster ride; it is also thoroughly entertaining.

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