Review: From Dusk Till Dawn (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

At first From Dusk Till Dawn looks like it might strike a balance between Quentin Tarantino’s savvy scriptwriting and the kinetic camerawork and adrenaline editing that are Robert Rodriguez’s forte. Indeed, the opening shoot-out, which segues smoothly from snappy dialogue to airborne hemoglobin, is a masterful fusion of talents. But after that, their styles prove to be as insoluble as oil and water. This is not one movie but two half-movies; one might call it Two Rooms.

The defining moment comes halfway through the story. Two American bank robbers and their hostages, having escaped to Mexico, enter a strip club called the Titty Twister, an opulent den of iniquity that leaves most other saloons choking in the dust. The camera lingers lasciviously on a neverending cascade of flesh, beer, flesh, Mayan architecture, flesh and six-shooting codpieces (did I mention flesh?) that vie for our attention as the criminals take their seats. One stripper takes centre stage — or table, as the case may be — and begins to flirt shamelessly with one of the slack-jawed gringos.

Until, that is, her face becomes a fanged piece of Shredded Wheat and she bites him in the neck — let the bar room brawl begin!

What’s interesting here is that the bitten criminal is played by Tarantino himself; among his hostages are a father and daughter played by Tarantino alumni Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) and Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers). The stripper, however, is played by Rodriguez regular Salma Hayek and assisted by other faces culled from Desperado’s rank-and-file; it’s not just her character that overwhelms Tarantino, but Rodriguez’s whole filmmaking entourage.

The first half does set things up nicely enough. As the brainier half of the bank-robbing brothers, ER’s George Clooney is a cool, articulate hunk, a pistol-cocking Dean Martin to Tarantino’s geeky, sex-offending Jerry Lewis. Keitel, in one of his most atypical roles to date, plays a soft-spoken Baptist minister who’s begun to question his faith ever since his wife died; when he and his children are taken hostage, the stage is set for some potentially fascinating character interaction.

But Rodriguez will have none of that. Once the gang crosses the border into Mexico, it’s as though they’ve stepped into a different movie altogether. The humanity established in From Dusk Till Dawn’s opening act evaporates into a kitschy and not very scary vampire slaughterhouse; it’s genre violence for the sake of genre violence, indistinguishable from any other slasher flick and so cheesy at times you’d swear the dissolving succubi were made of gouda.

If Desperado proved anything, it was that Rodriguez is a master of action sequences in dire need of a script to hold them together. Working with Tarantino was supposed to have solved that, but after this film and Four Rooms, it’s hard to believe Quentin’s writing was considered Oscar-calibre as recently as last March. These bad-boy auteurs will have to discover some new ideas if they don’t want to end up as terminally soulless as the monsters who stalk their movie.

— A version of this review was first published in the Ubyssey.

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