If Quentin Tarantino had never been born, would Bound, Freeway, and 2 Days in the Valley exist? True, the bad-boy writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had nothing to do with these new-to-video films or with many of the others that have been labeled Tarantino-esque in the past few years. And there are other tributaries that feed into these movies, notably Scorsese, Altman, and the Coen brothers. But those guys are into Art; even the Coens’ Fargo views its corpses with a poetic deadpan. The movies made by the Boys Who Would Be Quentin disdain deeper meaning for the caffeinated buzz of kitsch: They rattle with too much dialogue, too many plot twists, too-ugly furniture. Tarantino simply embodies the zeitgeist. He’s the epitome of the smart-ass video clerk who has absorbed everything in the store and could spit it all back onto celluloid if someone would just give him a camera.
He is, in short, a brand name, and it is as a brand name that his mug stares out from the cassette box of Switchblade Sisters, a decades-old drive-in classic that is being repackaged for video as the second release of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures. Future titles include Hong Kong actioners and Italian horror flicks — the kinds of tapes Tarantino would have recommended back in his own days behind the video-store counter.
Luckily, Switchblade Sisters, directed by Roger Corman protege Jack Hill, is trashy enough to survive being recast as a brand extension. Gleefully amoral, blissfully unrealistic, and actually pretty sexy, it captures that ripe moment in American culture when teen exploitation movies could spout Maoist rhetoric and get away with it. The main drama is the catfight for gang supremacy between bucktoothed cutie Lace (Robbie Lee) and willowy Maggie (Joanne Nail, as hard as her name). When the sisters join forces with an all-girl black revolutionary gang, break out the machine guns, and aim for their former boyfriends, the movie achieves a dizzy proto-riot grrrl feminism.
It also has a satisfying ending, which is more than can be said about Bound, Freeway, and 2 Days in the Valley. In fact, the main difference between Tarantino and all the other cynical, verbose, film-junkie writer-directors is that he knows how to wrap up a film; it’s the final scene, remember, that gives Pulp Fiction its moral dimension — that makes the whole thing matter.
Written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, Bound keeps the bloody tap dance going the longest before faltering. Essentially a lesbian entry in the Double Indemnity–Body Heat mode, it benefits hugely from the casting of Jennifer Tilly (lipstick) as the married lady and Gina Gershon (overalls) as the housepainter she ensnares. As the women’s plan to rip off Tilly’s Mob-money-launderer husband (Joe Pantoliano) unravels, the Wachowskis maintain a dark wit through oddball camera work; they think as visually as Tarantino. But the one-set structure finally makes Bound live up to its title. You watch in dismay as the movie literally spatters itself into a corner.
Freeway, written and directed by Matthew Bright, has equally pungent characters, but it lacks the snappy style that keeps Bound rocketing along. Low-rent and foulmouthed, Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) could be Switchblade Daughter. A feral teen trollop, she hitches a ride with a serial killer (Kiefer Sutherland), leaves him for dead, and finds herself branded as a tabloid villainess. Tarantinoid elements abound — a campy pop-music soundtrack, a nose for the gory ironies of fate, Pulp Fiction‘s Amanda Plummer playing a skank — and the leads turn in devilishly smart performances. But again, the movie collapses into a rote, ”happy ending” shoot-out.
And it’s the same — sigh — in writer-director John Herzfeld’s ambitious 2 Days in the Valley. Think Altman’s Short Cuts peppered with Tarantino’s taste for arch mayhem: Ten characters intertwine, shoot guns, fall in love, and mutter private obsessions. The massive cast is very good: James Spader, Danny Aiello, Teri Hatcher, Eric Stoltz, newcomer Charlize Theron, and Paul Mazursky all bounce off each other with gusto. But while Herzfeld initially keeps all the balls in the air, they finally come crashing to earth. The climax is a welter of loose ends, with the most potentially moving character, Jeff Daniels’ near-psychotic vice cop, written out as the bullets and sappy sentiments fly.
In other words, Herzfeld, like the equally talented Bright and the Wachowskis, doesn’t yet have the courage to see his cynicism all the way through, to give it resonance and meaning rather than sell out in time for the end credits. It’s proof, finally, that these guys aren’t all that much like Tarantino. Their fiction isn’t pulp; it’s just soft at the center.
”2 Days in the Valley”: B-
”Switchblade Sisters”: B+