Saturday, February 11, 2017

Death Race 2050- Review

The immortal Frankenstein rides again!
Move over Mad Max: Fury Road, take a hike Fast and the Furious franchise, blow it out your rear Snowpiercer, because a new post-apocalyptic bad boy filled to the brim with high-octane, over-the-top automobile action and scathing social commentary is on the mean streets, and its name is none other than Death Race 2050 from Roger Corman!

For those not in the know, producer Roger Corman is perhaps one of the most prolific producers in cinema history, whose influence on the medium can truly never be understated. Corman practically invented the whole idea of the independent genre film, and once more he returns (at the age of 90 no less) to reclaim his rightful title as King of the Cult Classics. Having been responsible for the creation of hundreds of influential movies worldwide, tons of directors and actors all owe a certain debt of gratitude to Corman in one way or another.

Despite being a fan of Corman's seminal bloodbath original, Death Race 2000 (probably one of his best known and most beloved works) and having access to the internet, I feel somewhat ashamed in admitting that this flick almost went completely under my radar. Thankfully I was able to make good on watching this cacophonous chorus of carnage recently, and I can't honestly think of a better film to open 2017 with. 

In today's day and age we simply just don't get films like this anymore. As a child of the mid 80's to early 90's, I grew up in a time when B-movies ruled the airwaves and cable networks like Sci-Fi and Cinemax. Sure they were schlocky and hokey, but they were also inspired and creative. While a shamefully small handful of them are still around today (such as Sharknado) I've gotta be frank and say that they just don't make them like they used to.

The year is 2050, and the civilized world as we know it is in complete shambles. Overpopulation has lead to widespread famine, and automation of labor has created a massive 99% unemployment rate. As the global economy collapses, the once mighty USA is reformed as the UCA (United Corporations of America) and it is lead by a lone leader known only as "The Chairman". As a means of population control, the Death Race is formed. An overtly sexualized, ultra-violent, cross-country race where the competitors gain points by killing pedestrians.

Of all the drivers, none are more popular than Frankenstein, the reigning champion, and this year's race looks to be an especially brutal one for him. New racers such as Jed Perfectus (a genetically grown super athlete) A.B.E. (an A.I. controled car) Tammy the Terrorist (a zealous cult leader) and Minerva Jefferson (a famous rap artist) all enter the fray, looking to claim Frankenstein's title. To make matters worse, seeds of a rising resistance to the current corporate power structure is making its first move to take back the country. With the odds stacked against him, can Frankenstein win the race, or is he set to become the next name on the long list of latest victims?

To be fair, this doesn't seem that far off from actually happening.

Written by the duo of G.J. Echternkamp (who also directed the film) and Matt Yamashita, Death Race 2050 stands as a beautiful example of not only how to properly remake a cult classic, but also how to effectively mix elements like black comedy with unapologetic social commentary. As much as I enjoyed the 2008 Death Race remake featuring Jason Stathom, I felt that version lacked the distinct bite of the original. A substantial amount of the humor was missing, and the narrative was devoid of the commentary that defined the original.

With this installment, there's a clear and obvious effort being made to have this flick actually be about something over the somewhat shallow action set-pieces of the 2008 version. Much like its predecessor, this spiritual sequel/remake takes more than its fair share of pot-shots at the mundanity of popular culture and its consumption. Be it the drivel of modern music, to the corporate media at large, to the rampant celebrity/idol worship, there almost isn't a single area Death Race 2050 doesn't touch upon in gloriously crass fashion, and I'm all the more glad for it. But it doesn't stop there, as it also retains themes from the original such as the conscious sedation and somnolence of society to the likes of becoming numb to violence, mass surveillance, and blatant political corruption. While it's far from the definition of subtle, and I'm sure there are those who will more than likely perceive it as being a way too on the nose jab at modern culture, I think it's also fair to point out that subtlety is not exactly a stated goal for this movie, nor is it in the style/method of a Corman piece.

Frankenstein enters the race.
In terms of casting, I would dare to say that Death Race 2050 is pretty damn solid all around, if not one of the best casting lists I've seen in years. Every part fits the actors chosen, making no one feel remotely out of place, and all of the archetypes they portray support/enhance the overall themes of the film. Like I said before, it isn't often we get movies like this.

Manu Bennett (of Arrow fame) is the leather-clad lead of a beastly cyborg that is Frankenstein, and is ultimately the core of the whole experience. Coming to the part with a slightly comedic masculine gruffness, Bennett is simultaneously amusing, and badass. The veritable icon that is Frankenstein in the Death Race world feels like it has weight with him, and as the narrative unfolds, his motivations become more and more clear, to the point that, even if you didn't like him at the start, by the film's end you can at least understand his goals. Unlike Stathom, who came at the role as pretty much himself, Bennett brings a much appreciated self-awareness to the character that actually serves to enhance the themes, coupled with his excellent chemistry with the supporting cast.

Marci Miller as Annie Sullivan (a navigator for the race who also serves as Frankenstein's virtual proxy passenger) is absolutely charming in her role, and has a great sense of comedic timing in several scenes. The celluloid legend that is Malcolm McDowell takes on the part of the "The Chairman" with class and crass, fitting the character like a tailor-made glove. From his glamorously fop (and perhaps even Elton John inspired) wardrobe, to his obvious comb-over toupee, to his clear lack of leadership skills, everything about "The Chairman" is meant to reference today's political climate with scorching fervor. Even the somewhat small role of Yancy Butler as the brutish, no-nonsense leader of the fledgling (and charmingly stupid) resistance stands as a ludicrous lampoon to modern public discourse.

None stand nearly as uproariously tall though as Burt Grinstead who plays Jed Perfectus to immensely hilarious aplomb. This character is easily the film's best feature, as Jed is literally a genetic product of the Death Race world. If Frankenstein represents heroes of a by-gone era, Perfectus is a representation of the homogeneity of modern action leads. From his self-aggrandizing narcissistic attitude towards every aspect of the world around him, to his overly sensitive temperament and hyperbolic outbursts, Jed not only reflects the extensive fiction he exists in, but also serves as a road-sign to what a future American generation may be heading towards. Regardless of what his character represents, Grinstead camps it up for the camera, and it's hard, if not downright impossible, not to come away loving his performance.

Truly a master-craft of automobile design.

Visually Death Race 2050 is an insane, gory, macabre, masterpiece. Despite my dubious praise though, you won't find me denying it that this movie looks cheap as all hell. The notoriously frugal Corman still utilizes all of the tools at his disposal, and makes this flick feel almost like a celebration of all the different methods used in its creation. Intentionally shot with as minimum of a budget as possible, every aspect of the movie reflects a dour world that's only holding on by a thread, essentially making for a meta joke on the production itself.

For the practical effect hounds out there who loved the delightfully destructive mannequin and dummy work of the original, you'll find plenty to adore.The astoundingly graphic tone of the original is preserved to an immensely faithful degree here, as once the race gets fully underway there is no shortage of severed body parts to liter the fields, or blood squibs to stain the streets. It only gets more gratuitously ridiculous as the plot progresses, and when Death Race 2050 enters its climax, you can certainly tell where most of the budget went.

The cars (while quite obviously made of equal parts plastic and foam) all have unique designs that congeal with the cast, making for vehicles that feel like an extension of their respective characters. Frankenstein's car is a dark and spiky mass seemingly built for the soul purpose of raking up a body count. Jed's ride is garish and streamlined, meant more-so for show and spectacle, rather than results.  A.B.E. looks like a calculator on wheels, and Tammy the Terrorist's jingoistic, all American paint-job is just as obnoxious as she is.

Annie takes ol' Franky to task.
Oddly enough, due to those very same budget constraints, it also means that there is little in the way of jumpy edits, or shaking cam. A lot of these shots are incredibly well framed (probably because they needed to count) providing only the most visceral angles to emphasize speed or impact. At no point do scenes loose focus on whatever is happening in frame, making for some surprisingly effective conveyance of action throughout all the set-pieces. The most post-production editing to find is in the coloring of the movie, which opts for a more saturated palette of hues and inky blacks, giving every sequence a near comicbook feel. Even with with the admittedly cheesy sped up footage for the car chases, or the blatant green screen shots, every moment in Death Race 2050 feels alive and occupied like a classic 70's comic strip.

Combine all of these factors with a deliberate (hell, it's almost reckless) use of casual full-frontal nudity, and you've got a movie that by all margins successfully encapsulates the essence of what made Death Race 2000 such a legendary film experience to begin with.

Perhaps the only area where I feel Death Race 2050 truly does fail to deliver is on its music. While it may be somewhat intentional, I do find the lack of a distinct identity to the score to be a bit saddening. Essentially the backbone of the original was sex, violence, and synth laden rock. Don't get me wrong, the original wasn't exactly a masterstroke of composition by any means, but I feel Gunter and Cindy Brown simply fall on the generic side of the sonic spectrum. Sure, the tracks are easy enough to listen to, don't distract from any moment, and at several points work well with the chaos unfolding on screen, but nothing resonates by the film's end.

The only notable track that I think anyone would take away from the experience is 'Kill, Kill, Kill, Drive, Drive, Drive' and that's only because it's a crappy rap/pop song that's meant to lampoon the insipid, derivative, and uninspired schlock we have in popular music today. If it were up to me, I'd more-so be trying to capture the spirit of those funky synth hooks from Death Race 2000.

In the end, it's hard for me to hate Death Race 2050. This movie is quite possibly now the penultimate example of how to do a fun B-movie correctly in the modern day. While I would never recommend it to anyone as a solo venture (because watching this flick of their own volition by themselves will probably not have nearly the same effect) it's one hell of a good time with friends while it lasts. If you're a fan of the original Death Race like I am, you'll find this to be far more in line with the original's concept than the somewhat soulless 2008 Jason Stathom version. Regardless of where you're coming from though, you'll more than likely laugh at the over-the-top kills, the metric tons of gore, the copious amounts of sex, and the surprisingly savvy script. With the world being as it is right now, I think we could all use something like Death Race 2050 to not only tide us over til the blockbuster season goes into full-swing, but to give us an opportunity to simply take a look at ourselves and have a hearty belly-laugh at the contorted fun-house mirror style reflection staring back at us.

Positive Factors

  • Recaptures the essence of the original Death Race 2000, unlike the dismal 2008 remake. For old-school fans, this is a god-send.
  • A raucously funny film, filled to the brim with black comedy and scathing social commentary. 
  • Beautiful casting, Manu Bennett as Frankenstein provides a solid backbone for the plot, while Jed Perfectus steals the show.
  • Car designs are goofy, but feel like organic extensions of the cast. 
  • Surprisingly solid action cinematography, given the huge budget constraints.
  • Immensely fun to watch with a group of friends.

Negative Factors

  • This movie is cheap, big-time cheap. If you're not on-board with Roger Corman flicks, this isn't going to win you over.
  • While the social commentary does give the film some much needed bite, it's about as subtle as a brick to the skull.
  • The score is devoid of identity. One track is memorable, and it's the most intentionally insipid piece of the whole film.
  • You might want to avoid watching this alone, unless you're that brave

Final Rating: Craptacular!

If you're like me though, there's only one proper response to this film, and that is:

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