"We're both so messed up. I don't know which one of us is worse."
- Duane Bradley, Basket Case

Monday, September 7, 2009

Death Race 2000 – You’ll Think Twice About Jaywalking

After more than eight years and 550 DVDs, the first time I felt overwhelmingly compelled to visit a custom DVD cover Web site was after I bought Death Race 2000 last week. Now I’ve been annoyed by a lot of covers in my day, such as the first editions of Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine, but this one just really depressed me.

Now as a disclaimer, this was the disc put out by Digital Multimedia Ltd., and cost about $8. Still, there’s no excuse for such a shitty cover, especially when compared to previous editions. Said cover was made by someone who couldn’t be bothered to learn Photoshop properly (perhaps the same guy who made the upcoming Night of the Creeps DVD?); there are three different cheap-looking fonts used for the movie title alone, and Sylvester Stallone’s bad-ass Machine Gun Joe character bears a striking resemblance to Speed Racer.

Luckily, the movie itself is a hell of a lot better than the cover. I didn’t exactly have high expectations either, since this was one of the rare instances in which I saw a remake before the original film. And, like most Paul W.S. Anderson films (the entire Resident Evil franchise, for example), Death Race was largely an underwhelming endeavor.

Death Race 2000, however, manages to be a very fun, campy thrill ride. The movie wastes no time in cutting to the chase, opening with the introduction of our five drivers and the rules of the government-sanctioned Transcontinental Road Race (yes, Death Race sounds way cooler). Contestants must travel from New York to California, finding the fastest route while battling each other on the road and stopping at select checkpoints along the way to rest and refuel.

Where the movie really shines though, is the way in which drivers earn points. In order to boost their score, the death racers must hit and kill pedestrians – for example, 70 points for kids under 12, and 100 points for senior citizens. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but the whole idea behind it is just too outrageous not to love, especially if you derive sick pleasure out of watching innocent onlookers get mowed down to bloody bits by speeding vehicles (and I do).

Not everyone sees the national event as entertainment though, as pockets of resistance throughout the country attempt to sabotage the race and eventually overthrow the tyrannical Mr. President and his fascist rule. Some of their schemes are straight out of a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon, and the hilarious thing is, a lot of them are successful.

The cast is great too, with the aforementioned Stallone as the main competitor to David Carradine’s Frankenstein, a driver with a mythic reputation and two-time winner of the race. Unbeknownst to him, his navigator Annie is a mole for the resistance, and has her heart set on making sure he doesn’t finish the race. Not all is what it appears, however, once Frankenstein starts revealing to her his true intentions for the finish line.

The other drivers act as comic book archetypes, ranging from the Roman emperor-like Nero the Hero, to Nazi she-wolf Matilda the Hun (and her navigator Herman the German), and promiscuous cowgirl Calamity Jane. For the most part they end up as cannon fodder, but their eccentric personalities add a lot of color (and skin) to the movie while they’re on the screen.

Perhaps it’s because of the nature of his death a few months ago, but I was strangely freaked out by seeing the late Carradine in this role, dressed up like a gimp, dominating his opponents and sharing awkward sex scenes with Annie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of his work, but I have trouble pushing the image of his accidental suicide out of my mind, especially when he’s dressed up in skintight black latex.

As for Stallone, he doesn’t exactly bust out the acting chops here, since 99% of his lines are him yelling in a fit of rage. But it’s Stallone, so come on, he’s still amazing – plus, he calls his airhead navigator a “baked potato.” I don’t know what that means exactly, but I like it, and hope to use the term some day.

And while it’s nothing out of The French Connection, the car chase scenes are plentiful and action-packed. It’s fairly obvious that in a lot of cases the actual film was sped up to achieve an effect of making the cars look faster, but it’s techniques like this that add to the movie’s charm. There’s even a decent amount of explosions and crashes to satisfy the audiences' bloodlust.

At the end of the day, Death Race 2000 is the type of movie that just wouldn’t get made in the 21st century, except maybe by Troma (the remake fails to incorporate the pedestrians). It gives new meaning to the term politically incorrect, and while it’s slightly anti-climatic, there's a surprising amount of substance to the film, and you really get the feeling director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) stretched every dollar as much as he could.

Plus, who needs endless amounts of cash at your disposal when you can make an impactful, memorable film for less? Hell, you could have millions of dollars for a budget, and still put out a bland, forgettable action film – just ask Paul W.S. Anderson.

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