Imagine if Elysium had a cooler older brother who dropped out of school and gets in trouble with the cops all the time, and you’ll get the gist of director Henry Saine’s Bounty Killer, a cheerfully disreputable riff on contemporary class warfare full of hot chicks and splattering heads. Harkening back to the irreverent, ultra-violent Z-grade movies that producer Roger Corman filled drive-in screens with back in the 1970s, this is schlock, to be sure. But it’s schlock carried off with wit and fine style.
In the not-too-distant future, corporations have finally gone and destroyed the entire world. The 1-percenters are now on the run across this scorched planet, hunted down by the bounty killers of the title and brought to bloody justice for their white-collar crimes. Amusingly enough, our bounty killers are treated as rock stars by the teeming hordes in starving shantytowns. They sign autographs, pose for pictures and sit for interviews with The Wasteland Times. (Amid all this chaos and destruction, it’s a relief to see that newspapers somehow survived.)
Drifter (Matthew Marsden) used to be everybody’s favorite. A sullen, shotgun-toting brooder who could have been ordered directly from the Mad Max catalog, he’s found his popularity eclipsed as of late by Mary Death (Christian Pitre). She’s his former protégé who struck out on her own, leaving only a knife in Drifter’s spleen for him to remember her by. Mary Death tools around the desert in a yellow muscle-car with a pinup portrait of herself painted on the roof, always clad in go-go boots outfitted with lethal accessories.
As far as wish-fulfillment fantasies go, there’s something undeniably cathartic about watching sleazy bankers and real-estate hucksters meeting spectacularly grisly ends at the hands of populist heroes. Bounty Killer’s politics aren’t particularly thoughtful, but they’re awfully satisfying in a caveman sense. Were that the only joke, it would wear out its welcome fairly quickly. Luckily, Saine, who wrote the screenplay with Jason Dodson and Colin Ebeling, has aspirations toward the epic and a knack for world-building.
The picture is packed with clever inventions and asides. I chuckled at the concept of “gun caddies,” who, as you might expect from their job title, follow around the bounty killers with large bags full of firearms, loading and prepping them as if on a golf course. There’s a stagecoach drawn by motorcycles instead of horses, perfectly in keeping with the film’s junkyard Western aesthetic. But maybe the best gag of all is that, as far as currency goes in this ravaged dystopia, a six pack of PBR tall boys are more precious than gold.
A bounty comes down on Drifter’s head, outing him as a former CEO. Mary Death aims to collect, only gradually realizing that these are all just the sinister machinations of his ex-wife (one-time Terminatrix Kristanna Loken), a hard-core Randian aiming to start a new corporate reign in the aftermath. She entertainingly explains how the apocalypse was actually a great business move because it got rid of all the unions, government regulation and minimum wage. Gary Busey is Loken’s sidekick, because of course Gary Busey is in this movie.
Working resourcefully on what appears to have been a microscopic budget, Saine serves up action sequences that far outclass a lot of what we see from his Hollywood counterparts, at least in terms of pacing and spatial geography. A mid-movie chase with the aforementioned stagecoach gets all Road Warrior for a little while, making one wonder what Saine might be able to pull off if he ever gets more than two pennies to rub together.
Of course, the special effects are often laughably cheap and the gore cranked up to cartoonish levels of crimson. Wanton decapitations abound. The acting is almost uniformly terrible, with the blank Marsden vanishing beneath Drifter’s scowl and leather, while Pitre’s Mary Death can handle daredevil stuntwork and elaborate fight scenes, only to be undone by the simplest line of expository dialogue. Best not to mention the braying comic relief from Barak Hardley’s overzealous gun caddy or ER’s Abraham Benrubi, but Loken is actually quite good. Somebody should put her in the next Atlas Shrugged movie.
With the funky soundtrack, retro costume designs and hilarious disregard for human life, Saine is obviously shooting for a modern riff on Corman’s Death Race 2000. Not an ignoble aim, if you ask me. The fact that he gets as close as he does is a testament to imagination and ingenuity; this is a filmmaker to watch. Besides, as proudly low-rent and meat-headed as Bounty Killer may be, it’s still not as stupid as Elysium.