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Charismatic leads fuel Syfy's likably trashy grindhouse homage 'Blood Drive'

Charismatic leads fuel Syfy's likably trashy grindhouse homage 'Blood Drive'
Christina Ochoa plays Grace, a contestant in a sanguinary road race in the Syfy series "Blood Drive." (Syfy)

A pun that became a series, "Blood Drive" is the story, more or less, of a race in which the cars run on human blood. (It's "Death Race 2000" meets "The Little Shop of Horrors" in a quick pitch.) It premieres Wednesday on Syfy, just where one might expect to find such a thing.

As in the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez two-for-one double-feature homage "Grindhouse," the encompassing conceit – hardly established and mostly ignored — is that the series has been made at some time in the 20th-century past, in that golden age of exploitation films "Blood Drive" has come to honor and, yes, exploit. It's a tradition of trash Syfy has kept alive for years with TV movies like "Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus," "Chupacabra vs. the Alamo," "Lavalantula" and "Sasquatch Mountain."

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It is set in a post-apocalyptic 1999, after a deep chasm has opened up in the center of the United States, the result of fracking-induced earthquakes. As a kind of bonus, this opening has revealed a wealth of "unstable minerals, morally questionable fuel alternatives, unnatural gases and deep wells of unidentifiable glowing goo with properties far beyond the realm of modern science."

Alan Ritchson (Aquaman on "Smallville," Raphael in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the the Shadows," Gloss in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire") plays Arthur Bailey, a good cop in a privatized police force whose motto is "We Kill Because We Care." Through a series of contrivances he becomes the helpless, unwilling partner of Blood Drive racer Grace Argento (Christina Ochoa, "Animal Kingdom," "Matador"), whose many bad actions are mitigated by a nobler impulse – she is trying to win the race in order to save her sister. They will change each other.

They race against a selection of nearly colorful characters, only a few of whom emerge from the background to affect the main action. But their primary antagonist is a steam-punk ringmaster named Julian Slink (Colin Cunningham). A self-described "tamer of beasts, connoisseur of fine wine, amateur swordsman, professional killer and creator of the Blood Drive," Slink is less interesting as an arranger of evil than when he is comically at some awkward disadvantage – usually when dealing with the corporate suits who fund his project.

Colin Cunningham plays an impresario of chaos in the Syfy series "Blood Drive."
Colin Cunningham plays an impresario of chaos in the Syfy series "Blood Drive." (David Bloomer/Syfy)

Because the race is also a television series within the series, "Blood Drive" has an opportunity to comment on its own process in a way that can sound preemptive. "They round off the edges and then they complain it's not edgy enough," Slink complains of the suits who fund his enterprise. "And all their terrible notes… 'Make her get naked more…. Why does she always have to wear those stupid tool belts? Does she have to race with that cop?'"

A B-plot involves Arthur's partner Craig (Thomas Dominique), who is caught inside the all-encompassing evil corporation they have been rogue-investigating, and in a weirdly sweet, evolving relationship with his captor Aki, a fembot in a Louise Brooks bob (Marama Corlett). Dominique's character spends a lot of time naked, with black bars strategically masking bits of him that foreign market showings may reveal. (The male backside is on healthy display throughout.)

The race itself is really an excuse for a tour through cinematic allusions. One episode plays off spaghetti westerns; another, titled "The Chopsocky Special," has an Asian theme (though not, oddly given the title, much in the way of martial arts). There is a battle-dome sequence; there are cannibals and mutants and sex zombies. None of these ideas are explored as thoroughly or keenly or as humorously as they might have been, but you do get the point.

Some of the plot twists (upon plot twists) feel born from a need to keep the thing going, and it can get a little tiresome in the home stretch. To be honest, this may have had something to do with my watching the series' 13 episodes at a single stretch; but the fact that I could manage that at all says something in its favor. What fuels "Blood Drive" from first to last is the charisma of its leads, whose bodily excellence is certainly part of the bargain, but who manage also to stay interesting and sympathetic as characters throughout.

The writing can be pretentious and also amused at its own pretentiousness, throwing around words like "metaphor" and "catharsis," references to Shakespeare, Da Vinci and the Oxford comma. As semi-ironic, dark and comic exercises in genre go, it is not as clever or carefully shaped as "Ash vs. Evil Dead." But it is miles ahead of "Sharknado" (which also lives on Syfy) and on the whole well-produced and directed, though its effectiveness varies from episode to episode and even from sequence to sequence.

Beyond that, it's a work whose very nature is bound to attract some viewers and repel others, depending on one's taste for gore and guts and how easily you can disentangle the sex from the violence, even violence qualified as "cartoon." (For what it's worth, creator James Roland has been careful to make the women in his story as powerful – if not more so – as the men.)

You know who you are.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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