By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: New meaning to roadkill.
Based on the novel ‘The Racer’ by Ib Melchior the year is 2000 and a highly rated cross-country race takes place on television between many colorful individuals. There is Frankenstein (David Carradine) who has lost an arm and a leg in past races and must wear a leather mask to cover up his facial scarring. Then there is his chief rival Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone) and also Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) and Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins). Of course this is no ordinary race as crossing the finish line isn’t really as important as how many innocent bystanders they can kill along the way.
The idea is outrageous and for the most part director Paul Bartel manages to pull it off especially within the limitations of the budget. There are real kick-ass car explosions here and none of that computerized crap, which in itself gives it a few extra points. I liked the scene were an actual car is seen dropping down a steep cliff and how they were able to block off long sections of highways in order to be the only cars on the road. Some of the dark humor is funny although more so in the beginning. The best moment is when a group of doctors and nurses wheel up some elderly patients onto the middle of the roadway in order to be slaughtered by the racers as part of the their annual ‘euthanasia day’.
Sly is really funny. I know some critics have gotten on him over the years about his acting, but here he steals it from his costars and the film wouldn’t have been as effective without him. Carradine is pretty good in his part and his more subdued acting style makes a nice contrast to Stallone’s flamboyant one. The two even end up in a nice fist fight. However, I liked the idea of having the Carradine character being this walking gimp of a man so intoxicated with winning that he continues to drive and compete even as his body falls apart. Having him take of his mask and look completely normal and making that all a sham was disappointing and took away the unique gritty mystic of the character.
The initial treatment of the script was written by producer Roger Corman and then Bartel was hired in to put a more humorous spin on it. Although I like the idea of having some comedy I still wanted more gore and grittiness. Instead it becomes too campy and cartoonish and losing the potential edge that it has at the beginning. There also needed to be more of a focus on the race itself. As it is it goes too fast with pit stop segments that bogged the whole thing down. They manage to get from New York to St. Louis in one day, which if going on I-70 would be 953 miles and doesn’t seem possible even at high speeds. There is also a question of the speed of these cars. Supposedly they are ‘real fast’, but there is one segment where Joe tries to run down a kindly fisherman and the guy is able to out run the car for quite a distance before he is hit, so they can’t be all that fast.
There is also a secondary storyline involving an underground group called the People’s army that is trying to sabotage the race and put an end to it. Initially I felt this thread would allow for more intrigue, but instead it makes the whole thing too over-the-top. The short running time doesn’t allow for such a convoluted plot and the whole thing would have been better served had they stuck to the race and racers personalities itself. The sappy ‘feel-good’ twist ending is terrible and ruins whatever potential edge the film had.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: April 27, 1975
Runtime: 1Hour 20Minutes
Director: Paul Bartel
Studio: New World Pictures
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video