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 Video and Audio
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.