Friday, May 24, 2019
This is my first entry in the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin
Here he comes! Machine Gun Joe! Loved by thousands, hated by millions!
Yessiree! They don't come any badder! Darth Vader eat your heart out. Machine Gun Joe Viterbo could run rings around your black-caped ass and have time to eat a stromboli or two in between acts.
Machine Gun Joe, who has the second best record in the annual Death Race runs has a deep and abiding hatred of his rival Frankenstein, the only other two-time winner of the Death Race and the only one who has a better record than Viterbo. But Viterbo hates being second best in anything. (Which is why I won't even put him below Darth Vader on the bad guy list. Strangulation I can deal with. But a couple hundred machine gun bullets? That'd hurt...)
Death Race 2000 (1975):
In the year 2000, the world is a vision of dystopia that seems somewhat familiar today. Albeit one in which America has somehow garnered a President-for-life dictator. The President, in all his magnanimous glory, has established an annual race in which all of the racers are given the task of racing across the United States from New York to Los Angeles. The first one to arrive in Los Angeles is not necessarily the winner, however.
Because in the violence loving future, the racers have an added goal of running over any civilians they can find in their path. Points are given based on the age of the victim and these are accrued to their score. So technically, a racer could arrive in LA first, but still be second in the winner's bracket because he or she didn't kill enough people en route.
The racers are a hodgepodge of tropes, much like the WWF of today. And each racer has their own navigator/sidekick who helps the driver achieve his or her goal. .You have Matilda the Hun ( Roberta Collins) and her second, "Herman the German" (Fred Grandy; Gopher from "The Love Boat") who are a Nazi-themed duo.
You have Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) and Cleopatra (Leslie McRay), who are Roman gladiators.
You have Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) and Pete (William Shephard) who are Western heroes.
You have the favorite star Frankenstein (David Carradine), who in the tradition of all Frankenstein's is supposedly pieced together with spare parts after numerous accidents in previous races, along with his navigator, Annie Smith (Simone Griffith).
And then you have Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), a gangster with his moll, Myra (Louisa Moritz).
Frankenstein, for his part, is just another driver, although he has been saddled with a new navigator. Unbeknownst to him, Annie is the granddaughter of Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), the leader of a resistance group determined to bring down the Death Race and to overthrow the rule of the President.
The race begins with a real bang as Viterbo shows up, and hearing the cheers for Frankenstein and boos for him opens up fire on the stadium. Those kills don't count, Joe. You gotta run them over, not shoot them... Joe does have some sense of the rules though. And at one point he takes out his own pit crew. Which the judges determine counts in the total of his "kills".
The race takes off, and Joe scores first. But the fly in the ointment is the resistance group who aren't above setting up traps to kill the drivers in order to achieve their goals. They lure the drivers into apparently easy kills only to have them blown up or drive off a cliff (through a fake detour tunnel, shades of Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons!)
Eventually, of course, it comes down to our two "heroes"; Frankenstein and Viterbo. And with Frankenstein apparently swayed over to the side of the resistance by Annie, that leaves only Viterbo to fight for for the good old American Way of violence at all costs.
Some of the better side scenes come from the trio of commentators who give the play by play action. Harold (Carle Bensen), a Howard Cosell knockoff, gives a straight forward no-nonsense account.
Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson) is the on the scenes girl, with a penchant for calling all the riders "a dear dear friend of mine".
And Junior Bruce (played by disc jockey "The Real Don Steele") is a riot as an over the top play-by play guy.
The dark comic aspect of the film may be missed by some due to the bloodshed on screen, but Paul Bartel, the director of the film, as an eye for real black comedy. You should check out Eating Raoul, another of Bartel's genius black comedies, for a true look at his bizarre wit. Lust in the Dust is also worth a look. Bartel only directed a handful of films, and may be more recognizable as a character actor. (he has 91 credits as an actor). But among Roger Corman's impressive list of "discoveries" in the field of directorship, Bartel stands out as one of the best in my opinion.
Stallone was still a year away from true stardom with his role in Rocky, but this movie represents an excellent window into the kind of character with which he would make a name for himself, as a gung-ho don't give a rat's ass about the rules type of guy.
Well, folks, that revving sound you hear is me firing up the old Plymouth. Drive safely, folks. (After all, this is only a movie. We don't actually have a Death Race...yet...)