by Steve Habrat
One of the better cult films to be produced by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman would have to be the 1975 dystopian satire Death Race 2000, an ever colorful grindhouse thriller that appears to have no shortage of eye-grabbing characters, gory death scenes, and black humor. Amazingly well spoken for this type of sleazy genre pic, Death Race 2000 is clearly a drive-in cheapie fueled by razor sharp satire, but it also gets by on the spirited lead performances from David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, both who seem to be having the time of their lives as the rival racers. Maybe the charms come from the DIY approach that hovers over the entire project, from the cars that look like they had painted styrofoam additions super glued on to them, to the red candle wax blood that erupts from heads mowed over by smoking tires, to the hilarious backdrops that look like giant billboards painted up to look like a futuristic city. It all feels like it was made in a week and if you’re familiar with how Corman liked to work, you probably wouldn’t doubt it. Under director Paul Bartel, the cheap production design is never allowed to overshadow the white-knuckle action, thrills, and wit that rocket at you at about 150 miles-per-hour. However, the film does a tailspin in the final five minutes, with a blowout ending that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie. It has been said that the filmmakers weren’t sure how to conclude the film and it sure is obvious once you see how they warp everything up.
In the year 2000, the United States has been destroyed by a financial collapse and is ruled over by a Bipartisan Party, which has unified church and state. It has become the United Provinces; a fascist police state ruled over by the mysterious “Mr. President” (Played by Sandy McCallum). The public is kept entertained by the brutal Transcontinental Road Race, a gladiatorial battle that finds five colorful racers battling to score points by running down innocent civilians with their spruced-up race cars. The star of this show is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (Played by David Carradine), the government’s champion that is part man and part machine due to the horrific wrecks from past races. As the nation gears up for the 20th race, Frankenstein finds himself stuck with a new navigator, Annie Smith (Played by Simone Griffeth), who he is immediately suspicious of. As the three-day race commences, Frankenstein finds himself pitted against his jealous rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Played by Sylvester Stallone), who will do whatever it takes to beat the fan favorite. In addition to competing against “Machine Gun” Joe, three other racers, Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Played by Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Played by Roberta Collins), and “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Played by Mary Woronov), are all out to dethrone Frankenstein. As the race gets underway, the five racers find themselves attacked by a mysterious rebel group led by Thomasina Paine (Played by Harriet Medin), who are determined to put an end to the savage race once and for all.
Death Race 2000 begins with a montage of jingoism, as marching bands and fans clad in red, white, and blue congregate for the massive race set to The Star Spangled Banner. It seems harmless enough until Bartel slips in an image of a man waving a swastika flag in support of Matilda the Hun. From there on out, Death Race 2000 is a rubber-burning satire on America’s fixation with violent entertainment and the media that enthusiastically sells it. The announcers happily explain the point system directly to the viewer; smiling as they explain how many points a rundown infant is worth compared to a pancaked man or woman. Things get even more twisted as the widow of the first victim of the race is brought onto live television, simultaneously sobbing and laughing as she is rewarded with a lavish vacation, all because her husband was the first to be gruesomely rundown in the street. It is not hard to see that Death Race 2000 is skewering the media’s love of all things blood and guts, all as Frankenstein reminds us that it is all about giving the fans what they want. Bartel does lighten the mood with a few scenes of black humor, mostly coming from Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and his constant frustration with both Frankenstein and his busty navigator Myra (Played by Louisa Moritz). The highlight scene comes when an innocent fan (who is minding his own business) mistakes the cocky “Machine Gun” Joe for Frankenstein. Joe retaliates by chasing the man down a river and flattening him. Now THAT is some black humor.
While the action and satire are both finely tuned, Death Race 2000 achieves its cult classic status through must-see (and when I say must-see, I mean it) performances from Carradine and Stallone. Carradine rocks as the partly mechanical man Frankenstein, who dons a leather mask and zooms from coast to coast in an alligator race car complete with massive fangs. You can tell that Carradine is having an absolutely blast strutting around in his black leather outfit that is complete with a cape that he enjoys twirling around. He is the ultimate man of mystery, at least to his die-hard fans. You’ll thrill as he is always one step ahead of his plotting rival “Machine Gun” Joe, a mush-mouthed brute bitter over living in Frankenstein’s shadow. Outside of Rocky, this is probably the best Stallone has ever been (Okay, he was decent in Rambo). He just looks so outrageous speeding down a winding country road in a car with two tommy guns and a giant knife mounted on the front. He nabs most of the black laughs while bickering with his bombshell navigator Myra, who acts like a giant space cadet. As far as Frankenstein’s navigator Annie Smith is concerned, she is mostly there to get naked and seduce him behind closed doors, but wait for a surprising twist with her character near the end of the film. Another stand out is the deliciously evil Matilda the Hun, who is absolutely wicked as she shouts about the master race while tormenting her fellow racers. And I can’t forget Don Steele as the massively annoying announcer Junior Brace, who just beams over carnage of the race, and Joyce Jameson as the obsequious television personality Grace Pander.
Death Race 2000 may toss around a few heavy ideas, but it never fails to remember its audience. Being an exploitation movie, Death Race 2000 provides tons of gratuitous nudity and violence, which is interesting because the film appears to be wagging its finger at violence for entertainment. There are plenty of gruesome deaths, which are all accompanied by the trademark 70s candle wax blood. In between these nasty moments, there are plenty of adrenaline pumping chases, fistfights, and even a nifty sequence that finds Carradine’s Frankenstein trying to outrun a rebel fighter plane unleashing bullets and bombs. Death Race 2000 also can’t resist stripping almost all the ladies of their clothing, especially Moritz and Griffeth, which will please most of the male viewers. Overall, Death Race 2000 could have been a victim of its own cut-rate production, but the less-is-more approach really allows the film to come alive. It may botch it in the final moments with an unlikely and frankly unsatisfying climax, but it is something you will ultimately forgive because the other seventy-five minutes are just so cool. Come for the nonstop action and stay for the seriously awesome performances from Carradine and Stallone.
Death Race 2000 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Ever since Dredd 3D premiered at the July San Diego Comic Con, surprisingly positive word of mouth has been spreading through the internet faster than SLO-MO inhalers across Mega-City One, something that is very shocking because action films released in September tend to be pretty lousy. Infinitely better than it has any right to be, Dredd 3D is a lean and mean superhero exercise that is both thoughtfully constructed by its director, Peter Travis, and also a thoughtful experience on the viewers part, something this comic book fan certainly didn’t expect. Travis seems to understand that many may not be so welcoming of Judge Dredd, especially after what Sylvester Stallone did to the character back in 1995. Well, you can all breathe a sigh of relief because there is no Rob Schneider here. While Dredd 3D didn’t blow me away like I hoped it would, I still found the film to be a relentlessly entertaining thrill ride that packs some unique action sequences, dazzling slow-motion shots that look fantastic in 3D, and a gritty aesthetic that resembles both 28 Days Later and District 9. And then there is Karl Urban as the man himself, Judge Dredd, a closed-book badass who is insanely likable even if we never do get to see his face or learn much of anything about him. I should also add that he certainly has a way with one-liners.
Set in the grimy future, America is now an irradiated wasteland known as the Cursed Earth. On the east coast, there exists a massive walled city known as Mega-City One, a violent metropolis that is ravaged by crime and an addictive new drug called SLO-MO, which slows the users perception of reality to 1% its normal speed. The only order in the chaos are Judges of the Hall of Justice, urban cops who posses the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. The nastiest and toughest of all the Judges is Dredd (Played by Karl Urban), who is asked by the Chief Judge (Played by Rakie Ayola) to train rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Played by Olivia Thirlby). While Anderson failed her examination by three points, she was still allowed to join the force due to her powerful psychic abilities that are a result of genetic mutation. Dredd reluctantly agrees to take the rookie under his wing and the two respond to an atrocious murder in a massive housing block called Peach Trees, a place where Judges rarely go. While investigating the murders, Dredd and Anderson discover that the massive slum is controlled by sadistic drug lord Ma-Ma (Played by Lena Headey) and her clan of killers. After Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s high-ranking clan members, the gang overtakes the slum’s security center and locks the two Judges inside the 200-storey structure. With ammo low and nowhere to hide, Ma-Ma unleashes a relentless army of killers who will stop at nothing to kill Dredd and Anderson.
Shockingly brutal and the very definition of tough, Dredd 3D never allows the action to get too out of hand or take over the film completely. There are a number of hard-hitting action scenes that do satisfy but the brooding mood in between these sequences is what really keeps us on our toes. Travis smartly builds suspense around the fact that our protagonists have their backs against the wall and ammo is scarce. Dredd and Anderson have to constantly pause to fully assess the situation that they find themselves in and devise a plan to quietly slip by the endless waves of trigger-happy gangsters who wish to make Ma-Ma proud. Some may deem that disappointing or, dare I say, boring, but it does make for a number of tense sequences that will have you chewing on your fingernails. Dredd 3D also finds a bit of relevancy in the inclusion of SLO-MO, the drug that is rapidly spreading through Mega-City One like cancer. Any time the drug or its terrifying side effects are mentioned, you can’t help but think of all the new drugs that have been making their way into the hands of America’s youth today (bath salts, 2C-I). Don’t worry, Dredd 3D isn’t a full on anti-drug commercial with an inflated budget, but it does get you thinking and there is nothing wrong with that.
Then we have Karl Urban’s awesomely gruff Dredd, who conceals his mug behind that mean-looking helmet and allows his mouth to droop into a scruffy frown. Dredd is incredibly fascinating even if we virtually know nothing about him. At one point, Anderson uses her psychic abilities to discover that Dredd is hiding some pain and anger underneath that cool helmet but we never learn what that pain and anger stems from. Dredd can also be darkly hilarious, especially when a couple of young wannabe thugs decide they are going to confront him. Anderson certainly has her fair share of emotional baggage and she ends up with even more as she trains to be a full on Judge. As the situations she faces become more and more disturbing, doubt begins to set in. Then there is Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma, one of the most fun comic book movie villains I’ve seen in quite a while. She nearly steals the show with her junkie slump, her hacked hair, her rotten teeth, and scarred face. She is eerily calm as she aims a Gatling gun at Dredd and mows down countless innocent bystanders. She is truly a villain that you want to see Dredd confront and execute. Believe me.
At a slim and trim ninety minutes, there is never a dull moment in Dredd 3D. There is countless glimmering slow motion shots that find bullets barreling through faces as blood and brain bits come dancing out of the screen at us. One scene finds the camera acting as the POV of one of Ma-Ma’s victims as they tumble 200-stories to their death. If you suffer from acrophobia, you may want to close your eyes during that particular scene. There is one sequence that finds Anderson entering the mind of one of Ma-Ma’s thugs and I will warn you, it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. The film does seem to run out of steam at the end, especially during the final showdown between Ma-Ma and Dredd. You fully expect there to be plenty of fireworks but it is a fairly calm confrontation that leaves the viewer wanting a little more. You’d at least expect Ma-Ma to put up more of a fight, especially since she is so sadistic through the other eighty minutes of the film. Still, Dredd 3D makes good use of its R-rating and it certainly doesn’t hesitate to deliver on all the blood, guts, and gore you can handle. The film also had a pretty effective score; a thumping industrial beat from Paul Leonard-Morgan that uses filthy synths to compliment the decaying steel of Peach Trees. With Mega-City One being such a sprawling metropolis, I firmly believe that we haven’t seen the last of Urban’s Dredd. There is plenty more to explore with this character and I hope that he gets a follow up. Overall, if you’re sick of the Resident Evil franchise and looking for some edgy action to shake you out of your early fall ennui, Dredd 3D will do the trick.
by Steve Habrat
One thing that I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime is Sylvester Stallone duke it out with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now if that doesn’t scream manly than nothing does. Thanks to director Simon West’s The Expendables 2, I have now seen these two titans of action beat each other to a bloody pulp and I have to say, I kind of enjoyed watching it. Yes, I sort of enjoyed The Expendables 2 because, well, it was the movie that should have been released back in August 2010. I wasn’t exactly kind to the first Expendables film and for good reason. It was pretty stupid and unfulfilling to say the least, a hoarse battle cry for the action films with empty beefcakes shooting their way through endless waves of bad guys. It also had a weak villain and not nearly as many aging action stars as it liked to think it had. Also, Stallone was taking things way too seriously, almost like the film (which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in) was the reassuring whisper in his ear saying, “you still have it in you, man!” Now we have the balls-to-the-wall sequel to that testosterone terror of a first film and the party has begun. Still weak in the plot depart and still light on character development, The Expendables 2 wins bonus points for the smart inclusion of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, AND Chuck Norris. Got all that? The only manly thing missing from The Expendables 2 is an all you can eat buffet of pizza and hot wings and a complimentary cooler of ice cold Budweiser, all served to you by a smoking hot blonde in a low cut tank top. Personally, I’m stunned Stallone didn’t demand all theaters provide this during showings of the film.
After rescuing a Chinese businessman from the clutches of a brutal mercenary in Nepal, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Played by Sylvester Stallone) and his team return to the U.S. for some much needed R&R. Playtime is cut short when Barney finds himself approached by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis), who asks that the Expendables travel to Albania to retrieve a set of blueprints from a downed airplane. Mr. Church also demands that Barney takes the beautiful tech expert Maggie (Played by Yu Nan) along with him. Barney reluctantly agrees to take the mission and begins rounding up the gang. With blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), and snipers Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren) and Billy the Kid (Played by Liam Hemsworth) by his side, Barney comes face to face with his deadliest foe yet—terrorist Jean Vilain (Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme). It turns out that the blueprints that the Expendables were sent in to retrieve could spell doom for the entire planet, but when one of their own is killed on the mission, the fight gets personal.
The Expendables 2 mulls you over with brute force the second it takes command of the screen but it isn’t all an ego stroke for Mr. Stallone. The Expendables 2 is willing to kid with the audience and even have a sense of humor about itself. The guys all crack jokes about their age and long for the youthful enthusiasm that radiates from newcomer Billy the Kid. In a way, you do sort of feel for these guys because, beneath all the protein bars and steroids, they do have hearts of gold. Still, when one of their own falls in the line of duty, they just sigh deeply, say a few words, and move on like the manly men that they all are. Come on! Show a smidgeon more of respect. Oh well, that is the kind of experience you are in for if you were wondering. Still, it is a MINOR improvement over the first film but it is clear that screenwriters Richard Wenk and Stallone still have little regard for the plot of their film. It is the typical stop the money hungry terrorist before he reduces the world to ashes. This loose storyline basically leads us to one massive action scene after another and I must say, these battles are incredibly satisfying on every level. My only complaint is that they resorted to the goddamn CGI blood! NOOOO!
It is hard to approach a film like this and expect to really evaluate the acting but there are a handful of standouts, if you can believe it. Stallone dials back his heavy determination and plays things a bit cooler. I can’t believe I am about to write this but the one who steals the entire film is Van Damme as the purring terrorist Vilain, a man with the meanest roundhouse kick you have ever seen. He’s just a few kicks short of brilliant if you ask me and you can tell he is having the time of his life back in front of a camera. When he isn’t chewing up the movie, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris are. Schwarzenegger is like a giddy muscleman let loose on shopping spree in a GNC. He grins through one-liners like, “I told you I’d be baaahck” and you will be happy to join him in grinning. Willis, meanwhile, seems to enjoy being back in action mode after drifting into dramatic territory with Moonrise Kingdom. Willis is the most talented actor here and when he screams, “SHOOT SOMETHING”, he means it. Then there is Norris, the one who got the biggest response from the audience. You’ll be doubled over as Norris shoots his way through an ARMY of bad guys and then looks at Stallone and calmly says that he prefers to work alone. If that isn’t cool enough, Norris then references those jokes about him that have been passed around the Internet. Good to have you back, Chuck.
Then we have everyone else, who does the exact jobs that you expect them to do. Li is reduced to basically a cameo in the film and then he is off on his own. He does get a savage little confrontation at the beginning to keep his fans happy. Statham grumbles and mumbles over the fact that he is getting older and then throws some knives. There isn’t really any growth to be found in his character. Hemsworth brings some fresh talent to the mix but he isn’t given much to really do. He does bring a bit of depth with him, which was nice and pretty surprising consider no else cared to. Crews and Couture are here just to let you know that their characters are still alive and kicking. They get a few decent jokes here and there but they mainly just fill the background. And then there is Lundgren, who references his real life master’s degree in chemical engineering while sending a big wink our way. He almost seems desperate to convince us that he isn’t just some lumbering piece of meat. Rounding out the team is Nan, the female newcomer to this guy’s night out. She adds a sexy little sizzle and she can more than handle herself in a fight. It’s good to see Stallone is starting to let a few ladies mix it up with the boys.
Despite a familiar plot, thin characters, and some eye-rolling dialogue, The Expendables 2 still packs a mean action scene. The opening sequence has to rank as one of the most extreme action scenes of recent memory and it sure as hell leaves a lasting impression. I think it has to hold a record for the most deaths on screen in the span of ten minutes. The end fistfight between Stallone and Van Damme will have action junkies on their feet and begging for a lot more. And I have to admit that I smiled when Ah-nold and Bruce picked up some machine guns and joined the madness. And I have to confess that I laughed when Norris strolled onto the screen and let loose a fury that would make God tremble. My only other complaint about the film was the absence of the great Mickey Rourke. He would have been a welcome presence here as he really did most of the heavy lifting in the first film. There have been some significant improvements since the first film and I give The Expendables 2 credit for that but there is still room for even more improvement. For now, I’d happily sign on for a third mission with these guys. I just hope I don’t regret it.
by Steve Habrat
I avoided seeing The Expendables like I was avoiding a plague when it was released back in August of 2010. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about a handful of has-been action stars (and two still respectable ones) stomping around on the movie screen while trying to relive their glory days. I finally forced myself to sit down and endure the Sylvester Stallone action vehicle and my worst fears were confirmed. This movie has got to be one of the most astonishing things I have ever laid eyes on. The Expendables is a completely delusional film, one that doesn’t settle on reminiscing about the good old days, but rather painstakingly tries to make the plea that there is still a place for these mindless and ultra-violent shoot-em-ups in the cinema world. I hate to break it to Stallone, but there just isn’t a place for this kind of crapola. The Expendables is so jacked up on testosterone, that the mere hint of vulnerability and emotion practically makes Stallone and his beefcake crew sick to their stomachs and calling anyone who shows some of vulnerability or emotion a sissy.
The Expendables follows a group of highly trained mercenaries lead by Barney Ross (Played by Stallone) who are enlisted by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis) to travel to a small island between the Gulf of Mexico and South America and bring down a brutal dictator (Played by David Zayas). Rounding up a team that includes blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons expert Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), and demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), The Expendables, as they like to call themselves, head to the island where they discover that the dictator is backed by nasty ex-CIA officer named James Munroe (Played by Eric Roberts) and his personal bodyguards Paine (Played by Steve Austin) and The Brit (Played by Gary Daniels). Ross also makes it a personal quest to see to it that he protects the beautiful Sandra (Played by Gisele Itié), the helpless daughter of the dictator who is being savagely tortured by Munroe and his men.
If you are looking for anything that resembles depth, character development, or a beefy plot, you better start looking somewhere else. The Expendables couldn’t be a more straightforward film. It is also incredibly empty-headed and stupid, filling out its runtime with extended shoot-outs, car chases, and bone snapping mano y manos. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, that is why we are watching this!” The problem with the film is that it has absolutely no point whatsoever. It exists solely to blow things up, waste some fake blood, and allow Stallone to still think he has some form of relevance in our current world. What he completely misses is that audiences have embraced much more vulnerable heroes, ones who have some complexities and layers to them. There is a reason that action films of this sort have been largely left in the past and a good majority of these actors have been almost entirely forgotten by audiences.
The acting in The Expendables is basically what you would expect. It’s almost all one dimensional, blank, and consists of lots of flexing. The only two actors who check in any sort of noteworthy performance are Willis as the briefly seen Mr. Church, who grins through his dialogue and all but winks at the audience as he asks, “Gotta problem with that?” The very talented Mickey Rourke shows up as Tool, the groups mission coordinator who also runs a tattoo parlor the gang likes to hang out in. Rourke ends up being the only character that reveals some emotional scars, wounds caused by the grisly stuff he has seen in the past. His eyes leak in one scene, a sequence I’m surprised that Stallone even allowed into the film. Everything and everyone else ends up being a blank slate with a machine gun. To make matters worse, the dialogue that is provided by Stallone and David Callaham is all written to set up for cringe inducing one-liners for the group members to spout off to each other as they riddle soldier extras with bullets.
I suppose if you are in the target audience for The Expendables, you are absolutely going to love it regardless of what I say. If you are the type who enjoys spending your weekend watching 80’s action movies and wrestling, you have probably already seen this more times than you can count. There are two minor positives in The Expendables, mostly in the expertly photographed action sequences and the editing. To be honest, I never thought I would praise the editing in a film like this in a million years but I guess there is a first for everything. The climactic shoot out boasts incredibly well done editing, allowing all the action to be extremely coherent and clear. Alas, a turd is still a turd and The Expendables is most certainly a turd. If Stallone would have forced his rag tag crew to confront the traits of the new breed of action films, the ones where the heroes wear their emotions on their sleeves, The Expendables may have turned out to be an interesting fusion of old school action with new school sentiment. I guess I’ll be one of the sissy men here and say that I did not favor Stallone’s tasteless and irresponsible testosterone boost.
The Expendables is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.