Back in the halcyon days of 1996, my 10-year-old self rented a Playstation game called Twisted Metal II from the Blockbuster in town and from that point on, I was obsessed. The game series, spanning from 1995 to 2012, including 8 installments and a handful of spin-offs, is best described as a demolition derby that runs on gimmicks and nightmare logic. It’s like Wacky Races, but with a Hot Topic look and super-powered cars. The plot, to the extent that it matters, usually revolved around a demonic entity known as Calypso starting up a new demolition tournament in which various lost souls and cursed beings enter to win the big prize: a wish granted by the host. Unfortunately, these wishes usually resulted in monkey’s-paw, be-careful-what-you-wish-for endings, as you might expect from a demon. The cast changes from game to game, with Sweet Tooth the flame-haired clown driving an ice cream truck serving as a mascot and one of the rare constants. Twisted Metal games are more about vibes than plot, making them ideal for a screen adaptation. It’s a kooky, violent sandbox full of big characters, so you can pretty much tell any kind of story you want within that setting. This makes it an interesting animal as an “adaptation” because it’s not terribly important to nail a plot beat as much as to nail the raucous mood.
The Twisted Metal series now streaming on Peacock nails this mood and then some. Like the approach taken with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the Mad Max-flavored road-trip through dystopia is served well as an action comedy. We start with the amnesiac John Doe, played with a refreshingly loose, chaotic energy by Anthony Mackie. He works as a “milkman,” a catch-all term for couriers who take jobs in the various communities and enclaves remaining in a post-apocalyptic America. Then one day, while stopping by New San Francisco, he’s allowed inside the enclave to meet with their “COO” Raven (a smilingly malevolent Neve Campbell). She dazzles John with the safe and thriving community within the walls of the city before making him a tempting offer: deliver a mysterious package of unknown contents to New Chicago, a city of danger and ruin.
This seems like a trap and one that John doesn’t recognize. He accepts, fully taken in by Raven. He wants to live a more settled life with a community instead of sticking to his lonely life on the road. We meet our deuteragonist Quiet, a hotheaded and seemingly mute badass (Stephanie Beatriz) who we meet in the middle of jumping John with her brother. They’re later chased down by a paramilitary posse of wannabe cops led by Agent Stone (Thomas Hayden Church), a demented law-and-order-obsessed chud with plenty of firepower to enforce his “law.” Their encounter leaves Quiet’s brother dead and her smarting from a brand the cops burned into her so she would be known as a criminal. We spend a while following them separately before they inevitably join forces on the perilous road to New Chicago.
Twisted Metal nails the giddy violence and heightened tone, creating a zany, gory vibe that works for the setting. Mackie channels a bit of Deadpool with his motormouth patter and mid-fight quips, a much more fun mode than I’m used to seeing him in. He also brings an unexpected sheltered naïveté to this character who has known life only outside of society. Beatriz showed us on Brooklyn 99 that she can play badasses in her sleep and that’s no different here. Her Quiet is a great foil for manic John, usually puncturing his mood. There’s a great moment they have together during a torture montage set to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” While being given a chance to breathe, Quiet and John look at one another and grin, laughing as the torture starts again. It’s a great moment that captures the blood-spattered cartoon world of the games. There are many other great touches to this world including how the world effectively ended somewhere in the very early 2000s, so all the music and clothes and media anyone can find reflect that. I won’t spoil which very early-aughts musical artist Sweet Tooth loves best, but it was a hilarious choice that made me cackle. There are occasional stabs at pathos as we learn more about John and Quiet’s backgrounds and occasional political points in how brutish the “lawmen” are, but they’re never taken so seriously that it stops being a comedy with the same cheerful nihilism you can find in something like Zombieland.
There’s a large and unfortunate drawback to the Twisted Metal series, however: there are not enough cars. There are cars present and the show is generous with fan service in how they show off vehicles from the games like Shadow, Roadkill, and Twister, but the actual driving is a bit light for a series based on Twisted Metal. It’s a simple game with an excuse-plot, so if you’re going to adapt it, centering cars is rather important. When we do get car stunt scenes, they’re exciting and impressive whether they’re shoot-outs or chases. Those moments are just a little too brief and sparse. It seems apparent it’s an unfortunate product of budget limitations. As it stands, Twisted Metal functions more like an affectionate send-up of apocalyptic fiction and that’s great! It’s not setting anyone’s world on fire, but I welcome this goofier take on the “long trek through the ruins of civilization” genre typified by The Last of Us. Twisted Metal is TLOS’ defiant and wild cousin who just rolled into town with illegal fireworks.
Twisted Metal is a buoyant two-hander romp through post-apocalypse that recognizes the freedom the source material provides and offers some truly fun world-building touches. While I wish the cars were a bigger part of the action, especially given the source material, Twisted Metal is a fun-dumb take on the post-apocalyptic story we’ve enjoyed before.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.