From Dusk Till Dawn doesn’t have any great performances; it has a bunch of decent ones, a couple good ones, thankless ones, middling ones, bad ones, maybe problematic ones, but no great ones. And it could use a great performance because the script’s full of scenery-chewing dialogue courtesy second-billed Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino writes a movie he’d want to see, but also one where it’s clear he’s the center of attention. So when it comes time for Salma Hayek’s dance number in the grandiosely sleazy biker bar and strip club where most of the movie takes place, Tarantino’s the one who gets the table dance. He’s the one who gets to suck on some girl’s foot. And he wants everyone watching to know he’s that guy.
His character is a rapist and murderer who has just broken his brother out of jail. George Clooney plays the brother. Genes are funny. Clooney’s the cool, collected professional thief who talks in soulful monologue, listens to people, and only kills civilians when absolutely necessary. He also gets shitfaced when he’s upset and makes terrible decisions, which tracks since he keeps Tarantino alive even though Tarantino’s a monster.
None of that backstory is important to From Dusk Till Dawn. There’s a lot of talking about it because there’s a lot of talking in the movie's first hour, but none of it matters. Once the batshit hits the fan—oh, the sleazy biker strip bar is actually a vampire den—Clooney becomes just another member of the ensemble. He spent the first act and a half of the movie keeping the plot and Tarantino on point, though in the latter case, just cleaning up after the raping and murdering.
Clooney’s one of the decent performances. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the personality for the dialogue without better direction on his performance, and director Rodriguez’s got zero interest in directing performances. He also gets bored with all the talking; not a good combination.
Clooney and Tarantino need to get into Mexico; all the cops in Texas are looking for them. The film mostly shows it via a TV newscast where the liberal local Texas news media tracks a tally on how many Rangers the brothers kill. John Saxon and Kelly Preston cameo on the TV news; Saxon’s okay, Preston’s terrible. It’s a tedious bit, and she makes it worse.
There’s also a liquor store hold-up where the brothers watch Michael Parks and John Hawkes have a lengthy Tarantino scene. Parks is real good, and Hawkes is pretty good, but the scene’s a draggy way to start. Once it becomes clear Clooney’s actually Tarantino’s sidekick, Dawn loses a bunch of immediate potential; it’s all about Tarantino’s whims.
To get into Mexico, Clooney decides they need to kidnap Harvey Keitel and his teenage kids and ride across the border in their RV. Keitel’s a former minister; his wife died a horrific death, and he’s lost his faith. Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu play the kids. Liu’s adopted. Clooney and Tarantino make fun of him for being Asian. They also talk a lot of shit about Mexican people. On the one hand, you can kind of see them doing Clooney against type, only it’s not exactly (he just talks trash, he doesn’t act it). On the other, it’s just Tarantino in-virtue signaling because he’s an asshole.
Lewis is good. Liu’s fine. Keitel’s good. Keitel’s got a silly part in an eventually gory movie, and when the time comes for him to step up, it’s mostly just to pass the baton over to Lewis, which is kind of cool. The movie takes little note of it (based on the script structure, it is, actually, because she’s a girl), but she’s the protagonist, and it carries. Rodriguez’s got a little more interest in Keitel and the family.
When the action gets to the vampire bar, there are more supporting cast members to play it out. Hayek’s got an incredibly thankless part, but Fred Williamson and Tom Savini do all right. Especially Savini. Danny Trejo’s oddly bad as the bartender, and then Cheech Marin tries really hard in three different parts. Sadly the bit is it’s Cheech cameoing in three different parts. The amusement factor runs out when the first one drags on, and the film never re-ups.
Rodriguez is more enthusiastic about the gory, slimy, bloody vampire action, so it’s disappointing when it turns out Tarantino’s got no story for it. After moving all the pieces into position, the script craps out.
Good production design from Cecilia Montiel, even if Rodriguez and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro rush over it. When he’s not cutting together one of Tarantino’s ego trips, Rodriguez's editing is good.
Dawn’s okay—Keitel can carry the thing after it’s clear Clooney can’t, with Lewis able to keep it afloat when she needs to take over, too—but it’s utterly desperate to cool; and it’s barely, rarely chilly.