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Roger Corman's Death Race 2050

Universal // R // January 17, 2017
List Price: $18.49 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 18, 2017 | E-mail the Author
Of all the major studios, Universal has been the best at finding catalog titles to leverage into unlikely direct-to-video franchises. Big sellers like American Pie and Bring it On have racked up multiple sequels on home video, and even more unlikely films like Kindergarten Cop, Hard Target, and Sam Mendes' warless war drama Jarhead have been spun off into DTV gold. Another one of their franchises was built out of 2008's Death Race remake starring Jason Statham and Tyrese, which got two prequels led by Luke Goss. Now, they've returned to the Death Race well again for a third non-theatrical feature, but this time they've gone back to the 1975 original, with the legendary Roger Corman returning to produce.

In a story that feels more reboot than sequel, we are introduced to the drivers in the 2050 Death Race, including the biologically engineered muscle man Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), hip-hop phenomenon Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku), and crazy cult leader Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey). Leading the pack is the infamous masked Death Race champion Frankenstein (Manu Bennett). This year, each of the drivers are accompanied by a passenger wearing a VR headset so that Death Race fans can see, feel, and even smell their favorite competitor. Frankenstein finds himself paired up with Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller), a principled journalist who found her ace reporting didn't generate enough clicks to pay the bills. As the Death Race kicks off, Frankenstein struggles with the idea of having a passenger in his car, not to mention one who seems to want to interact with him, even help him win. Worse, there's a sense that The Chairman (Malcolm McDowell) of the United Corporations of America has something in store for his star player this year.

If that doesn't sound like much of a plot, well, that's because it isn't. Death Race 2050 takes a very long time to develop anything that resemble dramatic stakes, character motivation, or even a particularly compelling reason for the viewer to watch other than the appeal of watching a goofy B-movie where racecar drivers get points for running over pedestrians. Even more startling is the way this approach more or less works. Had Death Race 2050 put any more emphasis on its story, there would probably be more of an inclination to pick it apart, or a weight placed on it by the movie's need for it to function that would cause it to collapse. Instead, you have a more genial lark which plays like spectacle first and story second, which will probably be good enough for the kind of people who are curious about such a silly movie in the first place.

One thing that helps quite a bit is the movie's solid cast, who are all charismatic enough to keep the movie's energy up. Manu Bennett plays Frankenstein kind of dim, but he has a good chemistry with Miller, who juggles the script's somewhat schizophrenic demands of her character with a reasonable ease. Ramsey (star of the underloved indie horror The Signal) chews scenery with aplomb as Tammy the Terrorist, as does McDowell as the greedy President, and Charlie Farrell and Shanna Olson as the Death Race's two perpetually grinning hosts, JB and Grace Tickle. The same can't quite be said for the movie's craft. G.J. Echternkamp directed, co-wrote, and edited the picture. As a director, he does his best with the unwieldy Death Race vehicles and quite a bit of obvious greenscreen, but none of the action sequences have much kick (it's more about concept than execution). In his defense, he does keep the movie running along at a steady clip, with no egregious dead spots or lulls that might be fatal to what's already a shaggy dog of a film.

Corman was inspired to produce the film based on his observation that The Hunger Games seemed to borrow from many of the ideas in the original Death Race 2000, and part of his goal was to re-inject the political commentary the Statham remake and its sequels lacked. Unfortunately, in the hands of Echternkamp and his co-writer Matt Yamashita, the commentary mostly boils down to the names of places, including every city the team blazes through. They're pretty rote jokes about fallout zones, corporate takeovers, and the end of society. Similarly, Annie's got revolutionary ideas for Frankenstein, but the film's jabs at insight -- including giving McDowell a Trump-like combover -- are not particularly incisive. Frankly, it's a better joke (and still a groaner) when Annie has a frank conversation about the state of the world with Minerva at the "Bechdel Bar." At the same time, the movie's pleasant (if completely disposable nature) is somewhat predicated on its ideas playing silly rather than serious. Hard to say if that makes Death Race 2050 a win or not.

The Blu-ray
Death Race 2050 gets some pretty great art that feels sort of like a classic Struzan montage of imagery from the movie, including a bellowing Frankenstein inside the half-ring of a speedometer. The two-disc release comes in Viva Elite Blu-ray case that houses the Blu-ray and DVD copy, with a glossy slipcover boasting an identical design, and a sheet inside the case with a UV HD digital copy code.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Death Race 2050's presentation is a strong and accurate representation of the movie's extremely cheap nature. The image is bright and colorful, with impressive fine detail and a photoreal depth, but the entire thing also has a distinctly digital look to it, with no real texture or character. Sound effects are integrated with decent surround activity, but the effects themselves have a fake and facile feel to them that limits the degree to which the movie envelops the viewer. Much like the film's political commentary, it's not entirely clear whether or not these things will play to the consumer as a positive and even encouraged reflection of the film's "Roger Corman" aesthetic, or if they'll dislike how accurate it is. For my part, accuracy to the source is the more important consideration. French and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
A few brief video extras are included. The making of Roger Corman's Death Race 2050" (10:16) is a basic overview of production, including interviews with Corman and the rest of the cast and crew about the origins of the project and how they set about making it. "The Look of 2050" (6:29) covers the film's production in Africa (a popular destination for Universal over the more common stand-in, Vancouver) as it relates to the costumes and production design. Of course, the vehicles get their own piece in "Cars! Cars! Cars!" (4:33), and their drivers get to chat as well in "Cast Car Tours" (8:30). Finally, the disc rounds out with an unremarkable selection of ten brief deleted scenes (5:35). As a whole package, this touches on all the bases, but doesn't bring anything particularly scintillating to the table.

Trailers before the main menu include Hard Target 2, Desierto, In a Valley of Violence, The Take, and "Mr. Robot". No trailers for Death Race 2050 are included.

A film like this, recreating the cheap and anything-goes style of the Corman productions of the 1970s, could have been either really fun or really bad. Death Race 2050 is somewhere right in the middle, both buoyed by actual positives (the cast) and also, oddly, from the fact that its satire is so ineffective as to be less obnoxiously dumb. Rent it if you're so inclined.

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