Sometimes you just want to watch some crap. Or at least, I do. I enjoy many experimental and artistic movies, insightful dramas about the human condition, yadda yadda yadda. Yet often I am too exhausted mentally or emotionally to commit to films that require an open heart or an analytical mind. So I end up scrolling past dozens of acclaimed or interesting films in my Netflix queue and clicking on something I am pretty sure will be garbage, hoping that it will at least be entertaining garbage. At least one element has to grab my attention, in the case of these two movies it was recognizable titles.
The Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 was a 1975 exploitation/satire film that became a cult favorite. It was remade in 2008 as Death Race, a more generic action film with an exponentially higher budget than the original. That movie did well enough to get two Direct-to-Video sequels. The fifth movie, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, piqued my interest because it has nothing to do with those other remakes and sequels. I’m guessing they put Corman’s name in the title because unlike the last few generic action entries this one is actually going for the civilian-slaughtering satire of the original film.
Death Race 2050 stars Manu Bennett (Slade on Arrow, Crixus on Spartacus) as Frankenstein, a role occupied in previous entries by David Carradine, Jason Statham and Luke Goss. Unlike previous Frankensteins, Bennett’s face it not scarred or burned, and he barely keeps his mask on (see him revealing his face even on the movie poster in the header). Previous Frankensteins:
I loved Bennett on Arrow and Spartacus, but the movie does not really give him much to make him memorable. It also features the under-utilized but always delightful Malcolm McDowell as the Chairman of the United Corporations of America. Other racers are stereotypes or lazy parodies of stereotypes. The broadcast of the race and the titles for the locations are the main source of humor (“Washington, D.C. – formerly Dubai”). That kind of sledge-hammer satire is about all the movie has going for it, because even for a straight-to-video movie this felt cheap as fuck.
The cars are more cartoonish like in the original film, and have a bunch of shit pasted on (I giggled every time someone smacked their car’s canopy and it shook or bounced). That could have been charming, but they obviously couldn’t go over 20 miles an hour because ALL of the driving scenes are sped up so much they look like a Benny Hill sketch. It also relies too much on cheap CGI blood and gore, as almost every kill is just poor CGI splatter and then maybe a cut to some organs spilling out of half a dummy. I watch a fair amount of cheaply made direct-to-video movies, and this one still stood out for its shoddy effects and “action” scenes. It also was surprisingly light on titillation, as Corman used to call for gratuitous nudity and sex to spice up his cheap productions. There are some occasional brief gratuitous bosoms, but overall it is pretty lacking in what Corman-acolyte Jim Wynorski once referred to as “the cheapest special effect in our business.”
As harsh as I was on this, at least they were TRYING to do some satire and capture the spirit of the original. If they had just spent a little time and money to make the racing scenes at least passable, or had a sharper script to make up for the other issues, this could have been an entertaining B-movie. Instead it was frequently boring, and occasionally funny (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not).
Malcolm McDowell is still awesome, though.
Officer Downe is adapted from Joe Casey and Chris Burnham’s comic of the same name. It is about a continually resurrected cop who is like a combination of Frankenstein’s monster and a Terminator. The comic was mostly an excuse for gorily detailed artwork from Burnham (similar to the Frank Miller/Geof Darrow collaboration Hard Boiled).
Unfortunately I correctly assumed that would not translate well to a low-budget movie by an inexperienced director. What could have been a solid piece of trashy cult entertainment ends up occasionally entertaining at best and mostly forgettable.
The Good: Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) brings the mustache and generic intensity necessary for the role of Officer Downe, even if he isn’t a big beefy boy like the comic character. The movie has some fun lines and a few cool kills or gory moments. The under-appreciated Alison Lohman (Drag Me to Hell) shows up briefly among a group of killer nuns and gets the best death in the movie (why isn’t she in more stuff?). Sam Witwer (American version of Being Human) turns what could have been a boring exposition dump about the source of Downe’s power into a enjoyable scene purely on the strength of his performance. The over the top acting and unnecessary dubbing for villain Zen Master Flash was also stupid enough to be fun. More weird touches like that could have made the movie memorable.
The Bad: First time film director (and clown/percussionist in the band Slipknot) M. Shawn Crahan brings over all the worst tendencies from his music video directing experience. Much of the movie is ugly and garishly lit, with action sequences that are an endless series of rapid cuts that rely too much CGI blood (still significantly better than the action and gore in Death Race 2050, though).
The Ugly: Officer Downe has a straight-up terrible theme song by Crahan’s side project Brainwash Love. When I was a teenager I briefly liked Slipknot. I lost interest in them by their second album, but I still understand the primal appeal of dumb, noisy, angry heavy metal. Brainwash Love has none of that appeal, they just suck. The rest of the generic shit-metal soundtrack is also so bad that I was surprised and delighted by the appearance of classic rock track “Everybody Wants You” by Billy Squier during a major action sequence (this was probably the high point of the movie).
I would not recommend Death Race 2050 to anyone, but Officer Downe was a bit more entertaining. If you want cheap, silly, gory, macho bullshit and can look past the weak directing then there are worse ways to spent a drunken late night or hungover morning.
Since I can’t find any actual stills of Alison Lohman from the movie, here is a random cute picture of her: