Tuesday, January 17, 2017

An Alternate Reality #14: Death Race 2050

"Roger Corman's Death Race 2050", directed by G.J. Echternkamp, is a sequel to "Death Race 2000" (see "An Alternate Reality #4: May '15), which the iconic producer released in '75. Directed by cult favorite, Paul Bartel, the original film spawned a quasi-sequel, "Death Sport" in '78 and a trilogy of offshoots, commencing in 2008 with Paul W.S. Anderson's theatrical restart. (Each film, to some degree or another, is based on Ib "Time Travelers" Melchior's acclaimed short story, "The Racer".)

Anderson stated that his '08 epic is, in fact, an alternate-reality '80s prelude to Bartel's madcap event. This, therefore, officially establishes the entire series as existing on a parallel plane. The events of "2050" project a future that may not exactly stem from our current reality, but will exist somewhere within a dimensional sector just outside our own: a similar concept, one could argue, to the Biff-reigned realm of "Back to the Future: Part II".

In any other way, Echternkamp's follow-up exists as an independent (mis)adventure, with many nods to the '75 picture implanted for fans. In other words, if you've not seen any other "Death Race" movie, that's okay. This one works on its own accord. 

As a distinguishing factor, the "2050" races occur not only to delight the blood-thirsty masses (now assisted by a virtual-reality component that seats them alongside to their favorite racers), but also to quell overpopulation. The racers hold a celebrated dual purpose, therefore, as they gain points by killing people along a stretch from Old NY to Old LA and are again inspired by the popular, masked Frankenstein, played by Manu "Arrow" Bennett. 

As "Death Race" fans know, the franchise is characterized by a series of Frankensteins, who've been portrayed by different actors over the years. This makes perfect sense within the deceitful dystopia, since when one Frank dies, another masked anti-hero can simply take his place: for all intents and purposes, a resurgence of the same man pieced together to live, speed and slay again.

Nonetheless, Bennett's Frank is probably closest to David Carradine's '75 version (right down to owning a reptilian-lookin' car). Though he acts and sounds rather like Christian Bale's Batman when costumed, Bennett's Frank is otherwise dutiful, charming and wry when unmasked, with a hip, New Zealand accent, too boot. 

The other racers are just as charismatic in their own eccentric styles. They include angry, song-bird Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowfoyeku); the genetically engineered Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead); the Harley Quinn-ish/cult idol Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey); and the artificially intelligent auto, Abe (D.C. Douglas), who's supported by his sexually charged creator, Dr. Dorothy Creamer (Helen Loris). They are, like their '75 predecessors, crazed knock-offs of Hanna-Barbera's "Wacky Racers". (Too bad, though there's no Machine Gun Joe this time out; the namesake would have been a welcome addition. The musclebound Perfectus, nevertheless, is a an honorable substitute, giving Frank an immediate adversary to topple. He and Frank even engage in a brawl similar to that of Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.)

As with any "Death Race" movie, there's a governmental ruler overseeing the carnage. Malcolm McDowell assumes that role here, playing the feathery Chairperson of the United Corporations of America (an organizational concept introduced in the first film, as well as in the competing production of the time, "Rollerball"). McDowell's snooty assessment of the carnage fits the film's totalitarian atmosphere and in a subtle way, references his role in the equally demented "A Clockwork Orange". There's a moment, however, when he expresses a sincere yearning for the past, a time when decency and hard work were the norm: commendable, but hardly enough to make him redeemable. 

Despite the Chairperson's moment of florid sentiment, resistance fighters are out to break his regime, behaving much like their '75 counterparts, though armed and attired more in tune with Mad Max's world. They're led by the revolutionary, speech-spewing Alexis Hamilton (Yancy "Witchblade" Butler), who offers lots of rough humor through her gutsy speeches, as she and her uncouth gang zigzags into the race to bump off its steadfast participants. Odd thing is, the rebels are as reckless as those they pursue, embracing Revolutionary War rhetoric without fully comprehending it. Still, when it comes to choosing sides, they're clearly the lesser of two evils. (BTW: Hamilton holds a racy secret, perhaps not so beneficial to participants of either side.)

In contrast to Hamilton and her rambunctious flock, Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller) acts as Frank (and the narrative)'s navigating voice of reason...well, maybe she just wants broadcast exposure above all, but then again, perhaps it's something more elusive...more noble. No matter how one tries to pigeonhole her, on the whole, Annie fills the mold of previous sidekicks in her thoughtfulness, beauty and determination. (BTW, "Annie" is, in fact, the name of Frank's partner in the original film). Also, like previous "Death Race" leading ladies, this one never plunges into prolonged, kissy-faced interludes or breathless exchanges on why life is so tough. Yes, she knows things should and can be better and strives to make them so, but never gets so exasperatingly high and mighty to dilute the story's strange silliness.

It's this unpretentious angle that makes "2050" such an obvious knock-off of its founding chapter. Perhaps this is what Corman (and his wife, Julie, who co-produced) intended, giving Echternkamp and his co-writer, Matt Yamashita, the evident blessing to create a satirical reflection. Whether by purpose or plan, Echternkamp's visual style is reminiscent of Bartel's, though splotched with enormous splatter, to the point where the imagery sometimes mimics George A Romero and Herschell Gordon Lewis than Corman's exalted enlistee. (On an ironic note, Corman was allegedly displeased by Bartel's comedic handling of Melchior's material, but if so, he's clearly had a change of heart, considering "2050" is a full-fledged, dystopic spoof.)

Taken as an exploitative, action-adventure movie, "2050" admirably rises to the occasion: an entertainment for the brave of heart, filled with crazy car designs, noisy music, mainstream media mocking and jaw-dropping stunts. At the same time, one might argue, the film's excessive violence spews a sneaky statement on current society's casual acceptance of crash-and-burn catastrophes. 

For certain, the outlandish "2050" won't tickle everyone's fancy. It's an offering for fans of the franchise (particularly, those of the original) and those random, action fans who might wish to give it a spin. However, the new (and arguably improved) version extends enough of the original's impetuous panache to satisfy those who seek the wild and/or daring. Rest assured: If a namesake reunion doesn't come via Corman or Echternkamp, than indeed it'll roar from one of their inevitable successors. No ifs, ands or buts about it: Frankenstein will return. 

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