From Dusk Till Dawn
Today’s Saturday Replay is a tough one to review. Directed by Robert Rodriguez from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, it is an unusual movie because it successfully executes a complete change of genre in the middle of the movie, and yet still feels more-or-less like a single cohesive film. For the first hour the film is a fairly typical Tarantino crime movie, following the story of two brothers on the run from the law after a crime spree, and the innocent family that gets mixed up with them. Then suddenly and without warning it takes a sharp left turn and becomes a balls-to-the-wall action-horror movie.
George Clooney and Tarantino star as brothers Seth and Richard Gecko. Seth is a professional thief with a long criminal history, while Richard is a moderately deranged sex-offender. The film begins with the two brothers on a crime spree having already left a trail of bodies in their wake. They are on their way to Mexico where one of Seth’s contacts can hide them for a cut of their loot. Meanwhile Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is driving his RV to Mexico along with his daughter, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and son, Scott (Ernest Liu). Jacob is a pastor in the midst of a crisis of faith following the death of his wife. Soon the Fullers path cross with the Geckos and Seth decides to take the family hostage and use their RV as cover to get across the border into Mexico. This plan is largely successful, and the RV pulls up to an exotic, out-of-the-way, biker/trucker bar/strip club called the Titty Twister.
Up to this point the film is about what one would expect from a Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration. There’s plenty of violence, often sudden and brutal, there are strong and colorful characters, and there’s plenty of memorable dialogue. However, now things are in for a bit of a change. Shortly after ariving at Titty Twister, and witnessing a mesmerizing performance from the headline “dancer” Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek), the Gecko brothers wind up in a fight with a few regulars. In the ruckus Richard gets knifed in his already injured hand. As things cool down, Santanico looks hungrily as blood drips from his wound. She transforms, taking on the appearance of a fanged monster, attacks Richard. Suddenly we are in the third act of a vampire movie. It turns out that everyone working at the Titty Twister is, in fact, an undead blood-sucker. What follows is about forty-five minutes of violent, often gory, but all-together fun vampire-slaying action, as the Fullers must fight along side the man who had been keeping them hostage in order to survive till dawn.
This film was, essentially, Clooney’s big break as a movie actor, and he definitely carries the picture. Seth is the kind of characters that you can both like and hate at the same time, and Clooney makes it all work, he’s simultaneously charming and violent, and just charismatic enough to pull it off. Quentin Tarantino was apparently nominated for a Razzie for his performance as Richard, but I thought he was pretty effective playing the creepy not-altogether-there younger brother, who’s clearly trying to follow in the footsteps of his big brother and doing it all wrong. On the other hand if you’ve never heard of Ernest Liu before, there’s a reason. He’s terrible. It almost seemed like they picked a random person off the street and put him in front of the camera. Most of his interaction is with Clooney, Keitel, or Lewis, all three of these actors were within a decade (one way or the other) of being nominated for an Academy Award for acting, but not a one of them can bring anything resembling an actual human reaction from Liu. Not that I mean to damn Keitel or Lewis with that comment. Keitel in particular is at the top of his game as Jacob, and his interactions with Clooney are some of my favorite moments in this movie.
Overall this movie is hard to judge, the first half is a top-notch violent crime dramatic thriller, something that would feel right at home along side Pulp Fiction, or Desperado. Then there’s the last forty-five which feels like the climax of a great vampire-horror-action movie. The transition comes out of nowhere, but mostly feels like it works because of the way that the characters maintain their consistency in a wildly different setting. Yet somehow the movie as a whole doesn’t gel well quite enough to be more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good movie, I thought about calling it a “must see” but its not. It is, however, absolutely worth seeing.
[From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez – Rated R for strong violence and gore, language and nudity]