Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Kurtzman
Producer: Gianni Nunnari, Meir Teper
Stars: Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Danny Trejo, Fred Williamson, Ernest Liu
Two brothers running from the law bring a kidnapped family to a Mexican strip club that hides a cabal of bloodthirsty vampires.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez make for a likely pair of bedfellows. Like-minded with similar interests as cinephiles, both men have deep passions for the grindhouse era of exploitation film, graphic novel pulp fiction, and hyperstylized cinematic sensationalism. As filmmakers, both men had their breakout successes in 1992 with “Reservoir Dogs” and “El Mariachi” respectively, and subsequently vaulted along nearly identical trajectories of film nerd superstardom as independent multi-threat mavericks (Quentin as writer/director/actor, Robert as writer/director/everything-else-except-actor).
Separated only by five years of age and completely different bloodlines, the parallels in their imagination inspirations and professional backgrounds have otherwise bound them as brothers whether they are working in tandem on set or palling around in civilian life. With so much in common, it is odd how readily their collaborations shine a light on what makes them so different. Their “Grindhouse” double bill a decade later would capitalize on their contributions to a shared project being fully separate entities, but 1996’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” was first to show that when Tarantino and Rodriguez get together, they create something of two visions instead of a singular one.
From a story by Robert Kurtzman, the “K” in KNB EFX, Quentin drafted a script missing the staccato pep characteristic of his other 1990’s screenplays, but still very much rooted in the typical Tarantino tropes of diners, Big Kahuna burgers, and people trapped in car trunks. Verbal and nonverbal nods to pop cult references including “Gidget,” John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” and king of all vampire slayers Peter Cushing round out other trademarks identifying “From Dusk Till Dawn” as the unmistakable offspring of Tarantino’s pen.
Cool hand conversation between John Hawkes and Michael Parks lights a fuse of quiet intensity before George Clooney and Tarantino himself burst on scene for gunplay action like only QT can write and RR can direct. And so it is that writer and director grin at each other while knowingly setting the stage for a midpoint carpet pull when their crooks on the lam crime thriller turns into something else entirely.
Character-driven, dialogue-oriented drama creates the initial expectation of a “True Romance” and “El Mariachi” hybrid. Clooney and Tarantino are incorrigible criminal brothers on a terror spree towards Mexican sanctuary that leaves a trail of bodies, hostages, and blown up liquor stores in their wake. Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis are two of the three unlucky family members compelled by a gun to mule the siblings over the border. Keitel is a pastor suffering a crisis of faith, making the serendipitous arrival of almost certain to come tragedy a test from God like no other. The Gecko brothers have their own figurative demons to battle too, although everyone’s battle is about to become more literal.
That one hour prologue is basically a complicated smokescreen to catch the audience off guard when punchy wordplay and complex character arcs give up the limelight to pointed fangs, pointed stakes, and pointed fingers at a viewer who may be getting more than s/he bargained for. “From Dusk Till Dawn” is two movies in one, or maybe just one and a half. Pulling the switcheroo of an abrupt genre change is a gutsy call with the potential for plenty of fun. It is also a choice that carries a fair share of risk that pays off for some, but not necessarily for others.
Ever pour yourself a “suicide” at a soda fountain? “From Dusk Till Dawn” is a little bit like that. Orange soda and Dr. Pepper taste great on their own, so wouldn’t they go down even better when mixed together with Sprite, root beer, and Cherry Coke too? Much like the movie, it is an overloaded taste experience that dilutes what is best when enjoyed separately and can only be digested by those with strong stomach linings for excessive corn syrup and artificial colors.
The crime thriller appeals to one sensibility, the mindless vampire violence appeals to another, and the whole shebang appeals to anyone with no preference towards either one of the two. Those reeled in by that first half are prone to disappointment when the developing backstories and deepening relationships stall in their tracks, as though Tarantino wrote in complexities without payoff knowing that he would never resolve those threads. It is a convenient out that an eruption of madcap murderous mayhem and crackling special effects interrupts having to come up with a proper conclusion for that half of the story.
Those suckered in just as equally by the second half mania of decapitated heads, digital bats, and Salma Hayek dancing with an albino python might not mind much. Chapter two of “From Dusk Till Dawn” has less of a story than “Three Little Pigs” and is arguably just as childish. But how much of a problem is that supposed to be when that was Rodriguez and Tarantino’s intention from the outset? That is for the viewers to decide if they want their genres delivered in different cups or splashed together into one combined sea of sloshing, sugary, unashamed cinema.
Review Score: 75