Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 28 June 2009
Source Google Video
Categories Favorites: The Action Movie
“What is that?” asks Annie Paine, navigator to the legendary race-car driver Frankenstein, as nurses and doctors set wheelchair-bound elderly people in the middle of the road, right in the path of their speeding car.
“Euthanasia Day at the geriatric home,” Frankenstein mutters. But just as Annie ducks and screams, Frankenstein makes a sharp left and, instead of “euthanizing” the old people, plows through the watching crowd of hospital staffers, white coats and nurse’s uniforms flying like so many bowling pins. Two hundred points!
In the year 2000, the United States has suffered an economic and political collapse. The now-combined political parties and a vague church authority rule the land remotely, with the Kim Jong-Il-like “Mr. President” making pronouncements from his smoke-machine-equipped propaganda room. The nation’s distraction comes in the form of the Transcontinental Road Race, in which racers compete not only to be first from New York to “New L.A.,” but also to score the most “points” by running over hapless pedestrians. It’s a real-world version of that “100 points!” game everyone played as teenagers when an old lady wandered into the crosswalk. The results are hilariously satisfying.
David Carradine plays “Frankenstein,” the only competitor to have survived - and won - a previous Transcontinental race. According to legend, most of his body parts, including much of his face, were blown off in previous accidents and reattached in cyborg form. He spends much of the film in a full leather costume and mask. Frankenstein is a national hero - a superhero, really - with a disguise and a cape and a kickass car. His new “navigator,” a perky blonde who isn’t afraid to do a number of long, lingering scenes with no top on, is actually a double-agent. She’s the granddaughter of Thomasina Paine, leader of the underground resistance that wishes to shut down the race and challenge Mr. President. The resistance intends to sabotage Frankenstein and replace him with a double who will give their demands to the Dear Leader. (Only the winner of the race gets to shake hands with the president.) But Frankenstein isn’t what he seems. Doing the “enigmatic badass” role he always played so flawlessly, David Carradine (RIP) turns out to hate the president as much as the resistance does. As Annie discovers when she hesitantly removes his mask, “Frankenstein” is not a stitched-together monster at all, but a character constructed by the government to act as a national hero. Carradine is merely the latest actor to play him. His only prosthetic is his hand, embedded with an explosive (“A hand grenade,” Carradine deadpans) he intends to use to kill the president. After long scenes of well-maintained sexual tension, Frankenstein and Annie team up to defeat the other racers, elude the misguided rebel attacks, and assassinate the leader of the un-free world.
I hope this doesn’t make it sound like Death Race 2000 is some sort of B-movie attempt at political drama or high-minded satire. Though it does manage to comment on American culture (specifically the media—much of the film is framed as breathless “newscasts” of the race, with an obnoxious blowhard announcer; a wheedling, smarmy interviewer; and a droning “serious reporter”), Death Race 2000 is a parade of awesome from beginning to end. Cars with knives on the grille! Nazi chicks in naked catfights! Splosions! Sly Stallone and David Carradine in a punch-up! Gratuitous boobs! It’s a perfectly shameless feast for the id, without sacrificing its sly sense of humor.
A very young and then-unknown Sylvester Stallone is a tightly wound ball of charisma as the gangster-themed driver “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo, whose fragile ego can’t stand coming in second to the fame of Frankenstein. His dippy navigator doesn’t spare the cleavage. The cars, souped-up penis-mobiles painted to look like a charging bull, a dragon, and a Nazi tank, come equipped with blades, horns, spikes, and teeth to make the carnage all the more badass and bloody. Every single vehicle, except for Frankenstein’s, ends up exploding spectacularly. (One of them, the car of the relatively sympathetic Calamity Jane, vaporizes only after a hair-tearing multi-point turnaround over a hidden land mine.) The soundtrack strikes a balance between dated and cool, with wah-wah and slap-bass funk during some of the action scenes, and some well-placed orchestration providing a contrast to the wailing engines. As the race progresses, pedestrians are impaled, crushed, decapitated, and ground into a fine mist by squealing tires. Though director Paul Bartel certainly didn’t skimp on the amount of gore, he wisely kept most of his budget for acting, photography, and editing, letting some scarlet paint and a few dummies do what little wasn’t already achieved by the film’s near-perfect timing. Though the limits of the small budget show in scenes with too few extras or too small sets, the cars and the driving are all shot with a daring eye and a sense for great, cartoonish gags. Even a demolished stop sign flies end-over-end in a way that’s far more cinematic and cool than one might expect in such a campy movie. In almost every way, the movie strikes a perfect balance between hip self-awareness (thought notably, all the actors play it fully committed, as all comedic actors should) and irony-free lowest-common-denominator joy.
Overall, I’m not a big fan of action movies. And it isn’t necessarily because character is sacrificed for meaningless action, or that plot matters less than special effects. That’s what action movies are supposed to do. What most often happens as I watch an action movie is that I simply become bored, and it’s not because I hate explosions. Explosions are awesome. I think the sins of lesser, overblown action movies can be seen in the recent remake of Death Race 2000, titled simply Death Race. There’s certainly just as much if not more action in this incarnation, but the film takes itself so seriously. The cinematography is grim, grim, grim, and it tries to give the plot too much emotional weight when the viewers (and, obviously, the filmmakers too) really care more about blood, fights, and explosions. It excised every ounce of humor, of lightness, and, not coincidentally, of fun. Now that the characters seem to actually care about what happens during the action, I, counterintuitively, care less. What fun is violence with consequences? What once felt like a roller-coaster ride, with colors and speed and full knowledge that it was all just a game, is now more like being locked inside a metal box and thrown down a hill. It’s the very, very rare action movie that can make you think, and Death Race 2000 doesn’t try. It puts the emphasis on the sex and violence, where it should be, and forgoes any pretentions otherwise. That way, we all keep in mind that we’re just in it for the ride—and it’s a blast.
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