Back in 2008, Paul W. S. Anderson rebooted cult-classic Death Race 2000 with a safer, more marketable appeal. Gone were the innocent drive-bys and splattered civilians, replaced with prisoners who challenged one another for shortened sentences. The Jason-Statham-actioner still stunk of social satire, but a madcap Roger Corman extravaganza this metallic competition was not.
Well, after after two underwhelming sequels that ditched Statham’s Frankenstein for Luke Goss’ Carl Lucas, Corman has decided that Death Race should once again by synonymous with racy, provocative, schlock-shock depravity. Out with the imprisoned racers, and in with the slaughter of brainwashed fans by vehicular manslaughter. Death Race 2050 is the Wacky-Races-gone-savage sequel that remains true to Death Race 2000 form, never bound by the shackles of mainstream cinema that shy away from awarding twenty points for crushing a child under your car’s tire. Granted, director G.J. Echternkamp and co-writer Matt Yamashita never get THAT dark – they just depict the end of civilization with anarchistic, apocalyptic implications.
Welcome to the latest iteration of Death Race! As onlookers scarf down popcorn out of slop buckets, Mr. Chairman of The United Corporations Of America (Malcolm McDowell) welcomes everyone to another year of roadkill carnage. The racers are introduced one-by-one, from Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey) to Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), but everyone is there to see one competitor – the legendary Frankenstein (Manu Bennett). Can he once again repeat glory while driving from Nueva York to New Los Angeles? He’ll have to out-race obsessed rivals, rebel attackers and the Chairman’s own agenda, but as co-pilot/proxy Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller) finds out, Frankenstein never goes down without a fight. A bloody, pedal-to-the-metal fight.
So, for those of you who praise Sylvester Stallone’s work in Death Race 2000, 2050 runs a familiar course. Those who don’t? Forget everything you know about the Statham, ass-kicking Death Race reboot. Under Corman’s brand, you can expect three things – low-budget effects, energetic flamboyancy and enough political lambasting to make Michael Moore blush.
Malcom McDowell’s “Chairman” performance stings with fat-cat greed and venomous class warfare, made obvious by the immediate “United Corporations Of America” proclamation. This is no longer America – just an overpopulated, desolate wasteland of brainwashed sheeple who live their lives through virtual interactions. And what better way to thin the American crowd? A vicious, dystopian competition that desensitizes mass audiences while the upper-crust lines their pockets with more and more dough. Completely automated work forces, topless socialites, an American flag that replaces stars with dollar signs – welcome to Corman’s home sweet home.
Any appreciation for exploitation sleaze will depend on your midnight-movie sensibilities (and sobriety). Echternkamp and Yamashita don’t hold any governmental lashings back, so expect McDowell to bastardize Americana with zero humanity (this works) while redneck stereotypes shoot-up the midwestern “Red zones” (not as endearing).
Tammy the Terrorist will immediately turn certain viewers off who won’t stomach her prayers to Saint Dwayne Johnson, nor will they appreciate her dangerously unwoke proxy (an ill-advised co-pilot who’s a middle-Eastern caricature). Do we really need her suicide-bombing gags that leave piles of limbs behind? Political correctness is nowhere to be found in Death Race 2050, and while Echternkamp does temper some broad takes on power-hungry rulers and blind devotion (Tammy’s cult/religion), other jabs are weightless in soap-box aggression (viewers who wear black Speedo goggles that the film passes off as virtual reality devices).
Gore itself will present a point of contention for feverish effects hounds, thanks to a mix of not-so-polished CGI and fake Halloween decorations. Sometimes these sequences are a blast (random bystander being halved), and sometimes not so much (face getting ripped off CGI-style). Blood is certainly smeared across the nation, it’s just that half the time it’s that cheap, pixelated fakeness that stands out like a sore severed thumb.
Patience for low-budget aesthetics will assuredly be tested, but at least the cars are detailed with individual appeal. They’re not Mad Max: Fury Road extravagant (even though a Corman Doof Warrior would be EPIC), but Frankenstein’s green machine still is welcomed with open arms. As are introductions like Minerva (Folake Olowofoyeku) and her boombox-designed ride, or Jed Perfectus’ harpoon-gun hood ornament. Think more Speed Racer than actual NASCAR transportation, but at least these production designs are more definitive than some lackluster kill sequences might otherwise suggest.
Death Race 2050 is built on performances, all themed around popular culture. I’ve already aired my grievances on Tammy, whose boundary-pushing preacher is more irksome than anything, but other characters are pure B-movie must-haves. Manu Bennett as Frankenstein, for instance, takes to David Carradine’s original portrayal with a bit more gruffness (think his Slade Wilson take on Arrow with a little more heart), oozing the machismo of a half-cyborg gearhead. He’s only bested by Burt Grinstead as Jeb Perfectus, the self-obsessed Grecian God of a man whose unstable sexual preferences torment both his thoughts and threats (“I’ll take you from behind!” he aggressively screams). McDowell pisses on the lower-class with royal toxicity, Folake Olowofoyeku parodies the simplicity of modern music with her “Drive Drive, Kill Kill” single, Marci Miller has to act like a mechanical dick-chomper gadget is shoved up her…you know – this is not a film for serious portrayals, yet there’s a shocking amount of self-awaress to enjoy.
Do I have to say that Death Race 2050 is not for up-tight audiences or those who can only tolerate big-budget production values? It’s a Roger Corman production, and plays like one with irreverent enthusiasm. This is a movie about burning down the hierarchy and driving through town with corpses dragging behind. Every scene of this movie wants to be a fire-starter – a wake-up call to a technology-obsessed nation. No subtlety, zero holding back and without a single desire to play dumb. I mean, it certainly doesn’t have the staying-power to start a revolution, but at least it strives to be something more than gratuitous gore and burnt rubber (well, kinda-sorta).
Is it funny at times, as Jed Perfectus watches a television ad of himself guzzling thick, white “Protein” for purchase (commentary on presentation vs. acceptance)? As a surf rock song yelling “BOY’S NIGHT OUT!” sets the mood for a bedroom brawl between Frankenstein and Jed? With cheese appeal, of course. Are car chases particularly fast and furious? Not quite. Do performances toe a tightrope of suffocating camp and cartoonish charisma? Without question. While the scores tally upwards, are we awarded with a host of different deaths that revel in creativity? Get used to fake intestines being thrown on car windshields as bodies are flattened. Now imagine all that wackiness on repeat – for better or worse, Corman’s name delivers as expected. This is Death Race 2050.
Death Race 2050 will not be for everyone - or many - but they just don't make exploitation cinema like this anymore.