Back when I was a kid I had a mate called Peter and we used to spend hours drawing what we called “futuristic war machines”; basically cars laden with spikes, turbo boosters and machine guns. Years later, Paul WS Anderson (Mortal Kombat) would turn this into a movie starring Jason Statham (Hummingbird). And if I’m honest I kinda liked it.
In the near future the American economy has collapsed. Unemployment is at an all-time high and the hungering masses at reaching critical mass. Crime is through the roof and with the justice system unable to cope with the influx of fresh prisoners, it out-sources all prisons to private institutions. No longer under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, they start exploiting the prisoners by broadcasting live fights to the death at a tidy little premium.
But that doesn’t keep the public satiated for long(!). No, apparently the bored, unemployed masses want even crazier shit. Death Race is born. Prisoners get to race heavily armored vehicles against each other for the viewing pleasure of millions at home (for a low cost of $100 per race, or $250 per event). Each race consists of three events. The first two are designed to whittle down the competition – to kill off the minor characters and get the juices flowing. The final race determines the winner. Win five “death races” in a row and you’re granted your freedom.
The first action we get a taste of is the final of one such race. The mask-wearing Frank(enstein) and his beautiful navigator Case (Natalie Martinez – End of Watch) are leading but in some serious trouble. They’re being pursued by the monstrous Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson – Transformers) and a bunch of other lesser drivers. With all of his defenses (napalm, smoke, oil) mysteriously not working, he’s no choice but to drop the “tombstone”, the huge armor plate that protects the rear of his car. This smashes into Joe, but doesn’t incapacitate him. With the finish line in sight Frank knows he’s in the shit. Case bails out, while Joe’s final bazooka shot blast’s Frank over the line. Frank wins. But at what cost?
Elsewhere, Jensen Ames (Statham) is working his last day at the steel mill for some chump change. When the laid off workers start getting antsy over their light last pay check, the SWAT teams are called in and a riot ensues. Luckily, Ames escapes and finds his way home on the bus. See, he doesn’t have a license any more. As a former NASCAR driver and ex-con, he had it revoked after doing some naughty-boy gettaway driving or something.
His nice wife didn’t marry him for his career prospects though. She had her eye on his other “assets”. She’s kept him on the straight and narrow, and with the birth of his daughter, Piper, he’s doubling down to get a job and keep his family happy. It all goes to shit though when he’s tranquilized by a masked (and wrist-tagged) assailant. He awakens to find a knife in his hand and his wife stabbed to death next to him. Unfortunately for him somebody also called the cops.
Six months later he’s got a guilty verdict and he’s on another bus, this time to Terminal Island, the home of the death race. Here’s he’s introduced to the head screw, Guard Ulrich (Jason Clarke – Zero Dark Thirty), a sadistic bastard who combs his hair to the side like a gimp. He’s the right-hand man of the stone cold warden of Terminal Island, Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen – Face/Off).
She makes Ames an offer he can’t refuse. Take up the mask of dead Frankenstein and do the race. Ratings have been slumping since Frank went out and she’s got bills to pay. No one knows he’s dead. Not even the shareholders.
If he wins he goes free. If he loses or refuses…no more Daddy/Daughter days down at the steel mill. Ultimately Ames agrees and he’s introduced to his pit crew. You’ve got Coach (Ian McShane – John Wick) an institutionalized ex-con who is in charge of the crew. Next you’ve got Lists, whose blatantly on the learning difficulties spectrum. Probably not a good poster-child for disabled people in movies, as he’s a wuss who murdered his mother. He’s nice enough though. Finally you have badass mechanic Gunner.
Wearing the battered mask of Frankenstein, no one realizes a switch has been made. Not even the other drivers notice. Joe is just pissed he seemingly survived the last race. The mask looks really cool. It’s got an iconic look to it. Sadly, Ames takes it off when he gets in the car. Seems that the glass is mirrored. I suppose Statham wanted to get his mug out a bit more often.
Each team has there own car with it’s own unique brand of design and weaponry. Frank’s “Monster” is a Ford Mustang covered in rough-welded reinforcements, armor and machine guns. Joe rides a huge Dodge RAM truck; a black beast rippling with guns, bazookas and an immense cow-catcher at the front. Each vehicle is really uniquely designed specific to the character of each driver and the level of production is one of the great strengths of this movie. It’s really impressive the detail that each has. It made my old artistic bones quiver.
Sadly, the chunk of change they spent on each car is wasted due to the shoddy cinematography. It’s very much in a Fast & Furious, jagged camera, fast edit, lots of shots of gear changing style. You never linger for very long on any of the vehicles or any of the race. So there’s little appreciation in regards the physical nature of each. The cutting is so fast that you could mistake any of the stunts for CGI and vice versa, and it overall looks like a mess. It’s no carefully choreographed masterpiece like Mad Max Fury Road, where we get full on master shots of carnage and destruction, and it suffers for it massively.
Another dumb element is the MarioKart like bonus zones each guy has to drive over. For the first lap of each race they have no weapons or defenses. During the second lap a driver can activate their shit by driving over a special section of the road. Sword for guns. Shield for defenses. A skull for a raised spike that spells insta-death for the poor bastard who drives over it. It’s kind of silly, but explains why the cars are even driving in the first place. Surely with guns live from the beginning, you’d be better off starting at the back and shooting your way forward.
Any way, Ames/Frank survives the first race (a few others aren’t so lucky). In fact he leads for the majority of event but crashes out into last place when he looses concentration. The Aryan Brotherhood’s driver Slovo Pachenko (Max Ryan – Rage) shoots him a salute like the guy who killed his wife. That son-of-a-bitch. But how did he get out?
Well Hennessey needed a badass driver to replace the old Frank, right? She was actually the one who masterminded the entire thing. She has to pay. First things first though, Pachenko is next on Ames’ shit list. But there’s also the growing suspicion that Case might not be playing straight with him too. And what is Hennessey cooking up in that restricted area of the pit that no one can see? Surely that can’t be good…
Death Race, shot in 2008, is a remake of Death Race 2000, originally made in 1975. Confusing? The original was made by B-movie legend Roger Corman and starred David Carradine (Kill Bill) as Frank. He was being pursued by another Machine Gun Joe, this time played by a pre-Rocky fame Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan). One of the chief differences is that Carradine is not an ex-con, but a government-trained driver who is specially selected as a replacement to the last Frankenstein.
The continued presence of Frankenstein, regardless of the injuries he sustained or the wrecks he got into, and the ensuing public perception of him, proved to be a powerful weapon for the government (whom control the race). Carradine, aware that his days are numbered, has his own plan to kill the President and ride off into the sunset. While a bit shoddy around the edges the original remains quite a seminal movie, with insane stuntwork, killing, and gallows black humour. While stylistically superior, the 2008 remake pays respect to the original chiefly by featuring the voice of David Carradine at the beginning (as the original Frank).
Both the original and the remade version share themes from another dystopian sports film, Rollerball. Made in the same year as Death Race 2000, Rollerball features James Caan (Eraser) as Jonathan E, a player for the Houston rollerball team. Rollerball is a game where opposing teams have to chase a metal ball around a caged velodrome. Using force, they have to collect the ball and post it in the opposition’s goal. It’s an incredibly brutal game which replaces all sports and war in the near future. It’s heavily controlled by the shadowy government, and when Jonathan and a number of his team mates start becoming famous the chief string-pullers grow fearful. The notion of individuality and hope is something they want to avoid, so they begin to tamper with each subsequent game in an effort to destroy Jonathan E.
While the social commentary is a bit thin on the ground in Death Race, you can draw obvious parallels with Rollerball. It certainly also draws on a lot of real life fears in regards to the fragile economy and the increased availability of online violence. I’m a huge action movie and UFC fan, so I see no problem in this. We humans are a bunch of blood-thirsty bastards, after all. But they’re now offering clemency to prisoners in Thailand whom learn to become Muay Thai fighters. How long is it before some dodgy country whom doesn’t take human rights too seriously starts doing their own Death Race? Hell, I’d probably even watch it. I wouldn’t pay those prices though. Fuck that. I’d just Bit Torrent that shit.
Statham, as leading man, kicks ass when it needs to be kicked, looks like a hard bastard and cockney banters his way through the script. People criticize Statham for pretty much playing the same role the same way from film-to-film. He even looks the same in each movie. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You never saw Bruce Lee in a wig, did you? The backstory for all the other characters is reduced to a single line of dialogue, but they’re all likable enough. McShane excels as the caring mentor type, and has some of the better one-liners. There’s nothing like some of the badass shit on Running Man that he gets to say, but there’s stuff like “I love this game”, “Nobody fucks with my car” or “Now that’s entertainment”.
Each of the drivers having sexy female navigators did seem a bit outdated in this gender sensitive time. They’re shipped in from a lady prison upstate. I guess if this film was made now, Terminal Island would be a co-ed prison. Some of the drivers would probably be female, and their co-pilots would likely be gender-neutral people wearing amorphous body suits and having nondescript buzz-cut hair-dos. As is our current culture.
Case is actually capably played by Martinez. There’s only a few moments where the camera truly lingers on her body. For the rest of the film she’s a decent foil to Statham. I liked the role she plays in their escape at the end (no spoilers), especially after it’s revealed she was originally planted by Hennessey to sabotage Frank in the last race. This is contrasted by Machine Gun Joe’s all-male navigator entourage. He uses men because they seldom survive from race to race. The running joke of them all dying in absurd ways actually becomes pretty funny. I got a genuine chuckle out of Tyrese being increasingly shocked he isn’t injured too after they’re shot, crushed, dismembered etc.
Traditionally Joan Allen plays suit-wearing corporate women really well. Here she really ramps up the evil factor. Spider-like, she’s as calculating as she was in the Bourne films, but clearly lacking that underlying sense of human decency. She wants to keep the race running and the money pouring in. But most importantly she needs Frankenstein to lose, spectacularly. The notion that their freedom can be won is necessary to keep the prisoners interested. The rub is that she really can’t let some murderous bastard go free. For what? Winning some dumb race. No, her only recourse is to humiliate them. Her character doesn’t like foul language (backed up by physical violence from the sadly one-note Jason Clarke), but you know by the end that she’s gonna be swearing the house down when her plans go to hell.
I’m not a fan of Paul WS Anderson as a director. Mortal Kombat notwithstanding, most of his films are dross. However, as he makes popular dreck with pre-established fan bases like the Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil movies, zounds of idiots still line up to go see his shit. So he’s successful. But I’m gonna give him Death Race. Initially, the jarring cinematography put me off. And there are some needless action moments (like the SWAT team riot at the beginning). Ignoring that, the simple enough premise is decently executed. The production design is strong, as is the (albeit simplistic) characterization. It can’t match the likes of Mad Max in terms of quality or visceral entertainment, but it’s a step up from the likes of Smokey & The Bandit or the Cannonball Run. And I like those two movies. Get it watched.