Death Race 2000 (1975)
Ever wonder where calling out points for pedestrians came from? Surely most of us as young little punks who didn't know any better at one point or another blurted something stupid like "Oh, that one's worth 20 points!" without ever realizing that what we were doing was actually a movie reference. Ah, yes, but in Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, it's not just a stupid kid thing to say, its an actual totally legit scoring method, where women's rights activists will be glad to know that they are always worth 10 points more . The real question is, how does this little cult classic feel when watched almost 40 years later by someone who just happened to have seen remakes or never heard of it at all? Keep reading, or listening, and let me fill you in.
(Disclaimer: I'm not taking a potshot at feminists or women here, it's just a joke, so lets not get our britches in a bunch).
Right off the bat, I know what your first thought is going to be - there is no way, money back guarantee, that this movie has anything even resembling a half decent plot. Well then, you best be glad I preempted your thought there, else you might actually be owing someone money - but at the same time, how true is that? The main plot is, essentially, the simplest and easily seen as one of the dumbest plots one could receive from a movie - there is a race in which the contestants gain points from not only finishing first, but for running down numerous citizens on the way. This is something that we would expect out of nearly any B-movie, a plot that just allows for whatever is happening in the movie to take place - although in this case it does provide a little bit of back context, as it seems that somehow the President has used this race to eliminate violence and bad economy, and the citizen masses (who aren't getting run over, and some who do) absolutely love the race as a form of violent entertainment as these racers drive across the continent. They focus of this is primarily on veteran racer Frankenstein (played by David Carradine) and his navigator for the race Annie Smith (played by Simone Griffeth), although the other racers (including a young Sylvester Stallone playing Machine Gun Joe) all get their moment to shine as they battle it out for points, pole position, and bloom rivalries into full blown revenge attempts. It could have left it there, and most B-movie types would have been satisfied, but this movie adds in rebels as they try to 'stick it to the man' and the race in a true American spirit, led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) who plots to kill the President and free America from his oppressive rule and the civilian killing game that is the Transcontinental race.
Amazingly, this thing has all manner of subtle little plots in it, topics that can go as deep as why do so many people love violence so much? For such a simple overall plot, the fact that this thing goes so deep if a person really wants to think about it is amazing, and something not every movie could pull off (I'm looking at you remakes) as well as this one did. It even allows for some character development (primarily with Frankenstein and Joe) that allows us see them change some over the course of the movie, with a very nice little surprise twist at the end of the movie that I admittedly didn't see coming although I'm sure some might. Granted, it also has some moments that seem sheer cartoon-ish (how a driver falls for a cardboard cutout of a tunnel that the rebels set up I will never know) and makes you think that just maybe you are over-analyzing the movie when profound moments do occur.
Characters here are a nice mix of personalities, even if each seems to be rather generic in their specific form (Joe is an angry Chicago man, a Nazi "master race" woman driver, a cowgirl). The upside here is that even the cars match the drivers in personality, so the cars sort of become characters themselves (Joe's car has Thompson sub-machine guns and a giant knife on the hood, Frankenstein's car looks like a monster) an it makes it much more easy to pick out just who you are seeing in the action at any given time. Outside of those personalities, however, and the rare instance of Frankenstein, his navigator, and Joe most of these characters become rather shallow outside of that personality. Sure, the cowgirl hates the Nazi, and they have this mutual rivalry / cat-fight thing going on, but we don't really learn more about anyone who isn't Frankenstein because it's not essential to the plot.
Effects here are pretty darn cheesy, as will be a lot of effects from movies in the 70s. The violence is relatively clean (surprisingly so for a movie features so many people get run over) , featuring only a handful of deaths in gory detail (by which I mean fake-blood effects from the 70s). The cars, as stated before, all have their unique looks and personalities, much like the drivers, but unlike future remakes that involve all manner of weaponry attached to the car, the cars here are the weapons, making it for a more serious tone than the ones to come (if you can believe that). Explosions, however, are top notch, easily holding up to what you would see in a modern film.
Audio here isn't a strong point. Yes, the actors all deliver their lines wonderfully (even down the semi-annoying announcer who just absolutely loves his job way too much), but for a soundtrack we are treated predominantly to synth-boards that at times downright hurts the ears. For fans of the "Vroom vroom," you'll be happy to know that most of the cars sound pretty good, if not at times quite excellent (granted, I'm no huge car nut, so don't hold it against me if you disagree).
Ideally, I'd surprisingly recommend this one to people for at least one viewing, as it's by no means a terrible movie and it could lead to some pretty deep conversations if one wanted to really get into it. I do, however, have to warn that it's not for everyone - cheesy violence is still there, as is a couple of scenes with topless women. If you like your race movies wacky, or you are just looking for a nice 80 minute time killer, definitely check it out if you think you might at least be interested in it.