January 23, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: DEATH RACE 2050

Starring Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp. (2017, 92 min).

Thank God Roger Corman is still around to give us a real Death Race reboot.

1975's Death Race 2000 was never about special effects, spectacular stunts and kinetic action. It was about cartoon characters, garish costumes, boobs, over-the-top performances, tongue-in-cheek humor, self-awareness, social satire and gobs of audacity. That it ended up being arguably more entertaining than the dead-serious film Corman intended to rip off (Rollerball) was probably a happy accident.

The great thing about Death Race 2050 is that it has the same attitude and aesthetic that made the original such a hoot, meaning most of the fun will likely be lost on those who missed out on the glory days of 70's exploitation. Though touted as a sequel, it's actually a remake, perhaps the first one meant to appeal to the exact same audience. So to ridicule its bargain basement special effects, silly looking cars and clumsy action is to miss the point entirely.

For the uninitiated, the Death Race is an annual coast-to-coast road race where five flamboyant drivers (and their navigators) can earn extra points by running down pedestrians. Leather-masked Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) is the reigning champion, whose new navigator is secretly part of a resistance movement to undermine the race by killing all the drivers. Overseeing the event is the narcissistic Chairman of the United Corporations of America (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly-veiled parody of...well, you know who.

The cast appears well-aware of what kind of movie this is and give suitably amusing performances. As Frankenstein, Bennett cleverly sends-up the badass, tough-as-nails antihero, while Burt Grimstead hilariously steals every scene he's in as Perfectus, Frank's overly-athletic rival who privately questions his own masculinity. Even McDowell's latter-career brand of overacting fits right in. But best of all, Death Race 2050 is funny as hell and much smarter than its grindhouse pedigree suggests, with loads of timely (and none-too-subtle) social satire.

Manu Bennett counts the number of zeroes in his paycheck.
And I gotta say, as someone who fondly remembers seeing the original film in theaters, I'm overjoyed that Death Race 2050 looks like it sprang from the same decade, including its 70's-era depiction of the future and budget-shaving tactics like reducing the frame-rate to make the vehicles appear faster. It's all great throwback fun and, in a way, as much of an homage to a bygone era as Quentin Tarantino's entire filmography.

I know it's still January and I might have some faulty wiring, but so far, Death Race 2050 is the most entertaining 90 minutes I've spent in the Dave Cave this year. It's like revisiting my childhood, when I spent many weekend afternoons at my local theater taking-in sleazy B-movie double features, a lot of them from Roger Corman. To coin a cliche, they don't make 'em like this anymore, and if you don't remember when they did, you'll probably hate it. But that's okay...they didn't make it for you anyway.

"The Making of Roger Corman's Death Race 2050"
"Cars! Cars! Cars!" (title tells all - how the cars were built...with Styrofoam!)
"Cast Car Tours" (each cast member shows off the cars they drive in the film)
"The Look of 2050" (mostly about the costume design)

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