Death Race (2008)
Paul W.S. Anderson
Jason Statham (Jensen Ames), Joan Allen (Hennessey), Ian McShane (Coach), Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe), Natalie Martinez (Case), Max Ryan (Pachenko), Jason Clarke (Ulrich), Fred Koehler (Lists), Justin Mader (Travis Colt), Robert LaSardo (Grimm), Robin Shou (14K), David Carradine (Frankenstein)
“2012 – The United States economy collapses. Unemployment hits a record high. Crime rates spiral out of control. The prison system reaches a breaking point. Private corporations now run all correction facilities for profit. Terminal Island Penitentiary streams a series of cage fights live on the internet. Prisoners fight to the death, creating a ratings sensation. They are the new Gladiators and Terminal Island is their Coliseum. But like the mob of Ancient Rome, the modern audience soon becomes bored. They demand more. . . Death Race is born.” -opening text scrawl.
That a Death Race 2000 remake happened is no real surprise, if there’s one thing Roger Corman is famous for it’s milking a dollar. This was a man who made a shitty low-rent remake of Piranha, even though he was the one who made the first one. What’s surprising about Death Race is that it took so long, I’m really surprised there’s not a Death Race movie made in 1996 with Wings Hauser and Frank Stallone.
Now the popular opinion of this film is that it’s complete garbage, the archetype of the tone-deaf ’00s era remake that attempts to capture the cheap thrills of a beloved cult film whilst entirely missing the point. I don’t agree with that at all. While Death Race certainly skews a lot more straight-faced than Death Race 2000’s manic bubblegum tone, it’s absolutely aware of what it is. Death Race 2000 was a cartoon, seemingly pulling a lot of inspiration from Hanna-Barberra shorts from the ’60s and early ’70s, most noticeably The Wacky Races. Death Race on the other hand borrows from something a little bit more contemporary, it’s pulling from video games, most noticeably the car-battle series Twisted Metal.
The film portrays the death race as an underground sporting event pitting convicted murderers in a race to the death in a prison environment. The cars are all heavily armored with big machine guns mounted on the hoods for offensive capabilities and oil, smoke, and napalm dispensers for defense. These weapons are unlocked by running over massive plates on the track with swords or shields on them, there are also plates with skulls on them that summon environmental hazards. In the second race the racers have to face off with a massive armored semi-truck bristling with heavy artillery and the vehicles all even have a special weapon unique to them. Powers ups, special attacks, there’s even a boss battle! And still people claim the movie is over-serious and grimdark.
The audience could be forgiven for thinking the movie isn’t in on the joke considering where director/screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson’s career was at this point. While Mortal Kombat, Alien vs. Predator, and Resident Evil aren’t quite as awful as their reputations state (I’m not an apologist for any of them but they’re capable late-night cable actioners) and Event Horizon and Soldier are genuinely great films, he produced a lot of shitty movies and hasn’t made a good one since Death Race. At times I question what the man is thinking but it is my genuine belief that Anderson knows exactly how hilariously over-serious the plot of Death Race is.
So our hero is Jensen Ames, race car driver and two-fisted thug with a priggish Jason Statham-y accent, a priggish Jason Statham-y attitude, and a priggish Jason Statham-y face. When he gets laid off from his steel mill job (presumably so there could be more derelict industrial architecture to race steel-plated cars through) he fights with the SWAT team. This would be enough to send him to prison but he escapes somehow and comes home to his wife who is then murdered by a masked man who frames him for her death. This whole murder sub-plot is pointless and stupid and reeks of studio fuckery, it doesn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie and just feels like somebody said “but what’s his motivation to win the death race, what if he was doing it to rescue his infant daughter?” Every scene referencing this angle seems like it was spliced in after late-stage reshoots and though I have no proof of this whatsoever, it’s the version of reality I’m embracing. Mostly because it supports my narrative and I like to pretend I know what I’m talking about.
So anyway, Ames is transferred to Terminal Island penitentiary, home of the infamous Death Race. It seems that race hero Frankenstein was killed in the last race (seen in the film’s opening where he’s voiced by original Frankenstein David Carradine) which is bad because he’s the event’s face (it’s a wrestling term, look it up.) The good thing is that since Frankenstein wears an impractical chunk of iron for a mask, nobody knows what he looks like so warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) can just swap in whatever car-driving schlub she wants. So she presents Ames to Frankenstein’s crew chief Coach (Ian McShane) to use as the new Frank. The wrinkle is that Ames can’t reveal to anyone other than his crew that he’s driving. Anyone who wins races gets their freedom but of course that’s why the original Frankenstein is dead, because Hennessey wasn’t just about to let her golden boy up and quit on her.
The plot is shoe-string and in the video game tradition the scenes between races feel like poorly scripted cut-scenes. I know I’m stacking the deck against this movie by damning it with faint praise but the overcooked nature of everything makes it surprisingly enjoyable. Be it an adorably chubby-cheeked Jason Clarke as the evil prison guard who dogs Jensen to Joan Allen’s delightful turn as Hennessy. The warden has a tick where she hates swearing, this is all a set-up for a joke at the end of the movie where in anger she utters the phrase “Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk.” What does that even mean?! It’s not enough that she says it once but the quote is actually played again at the end of the credits.
The film’s two strongest performers are the ones who are the most sidelined. In 2016 it’s sort of a “no shit” statement that Ian McShane is wonderful, but if you weren’t a Deadwood fan in 2008 then you might not have had any clue who he was. (Sidebar: When I first saw this movie I spent the first few minutes of McShane’s onscreen time thinking “Man, Al Pacino has really let himself go.”) McShane has a sort of aloof wit to his character that’s infectious, he’s not taking any of this seriously and he’s just conveying this attitude of a completely competent badass because of it.
The other wonderful thing about this movie is Tyreese Gibson. I admit I’m a bit biased on this but Gibson has been a bright light in a lot of movies that were very un-good. He’s charismatic and always seems to be enjoying himself and I really like him as Machine Gun Joe. Joe is as brutal here as he was in the original film but he’s more sympathetic, sure he’s ruthless and really rough on his navigators (while all the drivers have sexy lady prisoners for navigators Joe has other male inmates because he kills them so often, though in a particularly cringeworthy scene one of Frankenstein’s pit crew suggests it’s because he’s gay. There’s another reference to this joke later in the movie that isn’t quite as ugly but still pretty unpalatable) he’s got a sort of quiet intelligence and honor about him.
In many ways Death Race isn’t really a remake, it’s actually a prequel. We have the foundation of Death Race 2000 built in this movie with the origins of the race, the idea of Frankenstein as a legacy, and the great collapse mentioned in Mr. President’s speech. The only hiccups with that concept are the inclusion of Machine Gun Joe and the fact that the collapse happens in 2012 rather than 1979, but that can just be written of as any rejiggering of continuity is.
In addition to the loss of the goofy announcers and pedestrian kills, the drivers this time don’t have much of a personality. Frankenstein is capable (though Jensen Ames is dull even by Jason Statham character standards) and Machine Gun Joe is great but the other drivers are pretty forgettable. The two most interesting, Grimm and Travis Colt, are killed in the first round; Pachenko (one of the film’s four main villains) is pretty forgettable; and the movie really wants us to be invested in the Chinese gangster 14K but his only major contribution to the film is to make exaggerated faces during action scenes. There’s nothing approaching Mathilda the Hun or Calamity Jane, though Grimm’s death is pretty great as one of the movie’s very few gore effects.
There is one major point of contention I have with this movie and it’s something I have never noticed in previous viewings. Death Race is one of the most horribly edited movies I have ever seen. Herky-jerky cameras and quick cuts were a thing in the ’00s but this movie just takes it to annoying heights. The car scenes are all very well shot with a great clarity of motion, and there appears to be a fair amount of great practical stunts going on but this is undermined by the fact that the longest uninterrupted action shot is about 4 seconds long. Shot of cars driving *cut* shot of interior of cabin *cut* close up on driver’s face looking intense *cut* shot of car again *cut* shot of Jason Clarke smiling like a sniveling dickhead *cut* shot of Joan Allen smiling like an evil lizard *cut* cars again. It’s headache inducing and began to really piss me off. Editor Niven Howie has done a lot of other movies that don’t have this problem so I can only assume that someone (maybe Anderson) wanted him to cut it this way. It’s awful and the only irredeemable quality in this film.
I suppose I should also address the gorilla in the room that Death Race is totally a ripoff of 2007 Stone Cold Steve Austin vehicle The Condemned, which was itself a ripoff of Battle Royale which was itself a ripoff of Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game, The Long Walk, and The Running Man. Basically nothing is an original idea and you’re slowly decaying as we speak, there is no joy to life and all is desolation.
Death Race is still stupid and it’s stupidity isn’t nearly as fun as that of its predecessor. I do think people are a bit too hard on the movie though, it’s a lot of fun and if you can get inside its head-space there is a lot to enjoy. This is just the nature of being a remake of a beloved movie, particularly one as loved as Death Race 2000. Now I’m told that this film’s direct-to-video sequels (actually prequels about the Frankenstein who dies at the film’s opening) are much better than this. We’ll find out next week.
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