Should I Watch..? 'Death Race'
What's the big deal?
Death Race is an action thriller film released in 2008 and is a reboot of Roger Corman's 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000. The film is set in the near future and concerns televised motor races between incarcerated criminals, racing and scraping for a shot at freedom. The film stars Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane and Tyrese Gibson and was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Having been in development since 2002, the film was successful enough to begin a series of straight-to-DVD sequels. Death Race made a modest $75.6 million worldwide and was greeted with a generally negative reaction from critics. The film also features David Carradine (the star of the original Death Race 2000) in a voice cameo.
What's it about?
After the US economy collapses, the increased crime rate in society leads to the rise of super-sized private prisons such as Terminal Island. The warden, Claire Hennessey, has devised a system of televised motor-races featuring prisoners as drivers. These so-called Death Races have become ludicrously popular and nobody is more popular than masked driver Frankenstein, the star of the show. With a variety of offensive and defensive weapons on display, the races themselves are brutal and anybody who wins five races wins their freedom.
Meanwhile, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames is struggling to support his family after the steel mill where he works closes down. Returning home, Ames is knocked out and wakes up to find himself framed for his wife's murder. After being arrested by police, Ames finds himself sent to Terminal Island where Hennessey wants him to race in the guise of Frankenstein who died after the last race. With viewing figures down in the aftermath of Frankenstein's "disappearance", Hennessey is eager for Ames to race for her. Reluctantly, Ames discovers that he doesn't have much of a choice.
Jensen Ames / Frankenstein
Joseph Mason / Machine Gun Joe
Paul W.S. Anderson
Paul W.S. Anderson*
Release Date (UK)
26th September, 2008
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
What's to like?
Death Race is the sort of film that knows exactly what audience type it's aiming for and throws everything it can think of into the film to appeal precisely to that target audience. Unfortunately, the target audience are boys around the age of 15-16 so the movie is a veritable orgy of noise, guns, sexy women, colourful language and vehicular-based violence. Not that the film was gonna pretend to be anything else, let's be honest, so at least it had the smarts to fulfil its somewhat basic brief.
Actually, the action scenes are probably the best thing about the film. The races are exciting if spectacularly dumb (why are weapons only activated by driving over odd markers?) but there doesn't appear to be much in the way of CG - the film has an old-school feel to it that viewers my age (late thirties) will appreciate. The human cast, by contrast, feel far more one-dimensional and boring. Only McShane delivers a suitably slimy performance as Jensen's head mechanic and pit-crew leader Coach and nobody can deny that Statham looks at home in an armoured car adorned with machine guns.
- To help get into shape, Statham trained for three months with an ex-Navy SEAL - one of the trainers for the film 300. He went from 20% body fat to just 6% in that time.
- Allen was the first choice for the role of Governor Hennessey but Anderson never expected her to accept the role. To his surprise, she agreed as she wanted to shake up people's image of her.
- The film used 35 cars which were constantly repaired by a team of 85 mechanics, even the film only features 11 vehicles. Ames' car is a 2006 Mustang GT fitted with a 5.4 ltr V8 engine, two miniguns, flamethrowers and napalm. Each car cost at least $250'000 to spec for the film.
What's not to like?
If you're not a teenage boy then Death Race will not do much to try and win you over. Granted, it doesn't care what you think so it won't get too upset if I say that watching this film is like watching someone playing a video game and they won't let you have a turn. The cast are fairly anonymous against the backdrop of ultra-violent street races but Allen is hideously miscast as the ball-busting warden. She has a line of dialogue so poorly written, and contains a threat so meaningless, that I can't believe she spat it out without cursing her agent. No wonder we haven't seen her in garbage like this since. She deserves far, far better.
Corman's low-budget influences can still be felt through the Hollywood gloss (not that Death Race is that low budget - at $45 million, it's Corman's biggest-ever budget) as the film's narrative contains little in the way of shocks, surprises or originality. The film has a nasty, grubby feel to it as though it's an exploitation picture and considering the single-minded use of female characters like Martinez's (in her film debut), that feeling is reinforced. The movie is the result of a catastrophic explosion at an idiot factory with clumps of dumbness raining down over the screenplay, cast and audience.
Should I watch it?
Although it needs to be seen to be believed, do not take that as a recommendation of any sort. Death Race is an action film with minimal ambition that's happy to bombard the viewer with noisy cars and explosions. I can't award it one star because the film does deliver on its meagre promises, unlike some others I could mention. But I was so close to throwing the book at the film which is so dumb, you can feel your brain rebelling at being subjected to this nonsense.
Great For: teenage boys, Jeremy Clarkson
Not So Great For: women, men who aren't Jeremy Clarkson, children, environmentalists
What else should I watch?
Driving films aren't exactly in short supply so there is plenty of choice for the more discerning viewer. The Fast And The Furious series contains to bring audiences a heady blend of street racing and vehicular-based heist antics with Statham-lookalike Vin Diesel at the helm. I admit to having a soft spot for the 2000 version of Gone In 60 Seconds which, while it's not great, is still better than Death Race. For a more sedate experience, The Love Bug is a great family film with Disney's VW Beetle Herbie coming to life while Rush offers a look at the real-life rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 Championship.
Roger Corman has established a rock-solid reputation for low-budget films that focus purely on audience pleasure rather than critical reaction. Ever since 1954's Highway Dragnet, Corman has created a plethora of movies such as The Beast With A Million Eyes, Creature From The Haunted Sea and Galaxy Of Terror that comfortably sit in B-movie territory. However, occasionally, he hit the jackpot - Machine-Gun Kelly introduced Charles Bronson to audiences worldwide while his 1960 film The Little Shop Of Horrors not only inspired the Broadway version in 1982 but also the movie musical of the same name in 1986.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox