Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Death Race (2008) and sequels

My notes on the Death Race franchise

I wrote about Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975) here.

Death Race (2008)

Paul W.S. Anderson is evidently the sort who buys a box of chocolates, but needs to put the chocolates in a different box then replace them with peanuts anyway. This is nominally a remake of Death Race 2000 (1975), though only producer Roger Corman gets a credit for the original – a big fuck you to Ib Melchior, Charles Griffith, Robert Thom and Paul Bartel who created that memorable quickie. Bluntly, Anderson’s script owes more to Albert S. Ruddy, Tracy Keenan Wynn and Robert Aldrich since this junks all but a few character names from Death Race 2000 in order to deliver a fast car make-over for The Longest Yard (aka The Mean Machine) with other elements tipped in from futuristic or contemporary prison movies (the chanting cell block comes from Runaway Train, for instance).

Death Race 2000 was a thick-ear satire – so was The Longest Yard, for that matter – but Death Race (2008) is a ludicrous action movie which proceeds with a straight face even as Joan Allen camps it up as a dragon lady prison warden and the screenplay keeps advancing lunatic notions like a racetrack which includes optional short cuts. The 1975 film features transcontinental road race in which points are awarded for running over pedestrians, and its champion hero Frankenstein (David Carradine) rebels in order to overthrow a corrupt dystopia. Here, the race takes place entirely within the bounds of Terminal Island prison (is reference intended to the Stephanie Rothman film?), though the fact that there’s a narrow causeway to the mainland hints at what’ll happen in the climax. The only acceptable casualties are other convict drivers or their navigators — the drivers have navigators in a hold-over from the old movie, though even thicko wheelmen ought to know how to go round in a circle without instructions. The set-up, involving the collapse of the US economy in 2012 and the streaming of pay-per-view gladiatorial games with convicts over the internet, is as thuddingly solemn and frankly unlikely as the world of Rollerball, the film Death Race 2000 beat to the punch. Frankenstein, a masked racer (nostalgically voiced by Carradine), is killed in a crash but Warden Hennessey (Allen) wants to replace him to keep interest in the race at a peak.

Disgraced racing champ and just-laid-off steelworker Jensen Garner Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife and sentenced to Terminal Island, where Hennessey bullies him into becoming the new Frankenstein, with a back-up team including mechanical genius Coach (Ian McShane, taking the cheque) and navigator Case (Natalie Martinez), bussed in from women’s prison to up the ratings. The other drivers are thin beside Bartel’s line-up, with womenfolk reduced to eye candy in the passenger seat as opposed to the tough driving chicks played by the likes of Mary Woronov last time round. Frankenstein’s arch-rival is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a gay badass with a knack of getting his navigators killed who starts out as a hissable baddie like Sylvester Stallone’s similarly-named character but turns into a staunch ally and sidekick – we’re expected to overlook all the murders because he’s black, I suppose. The rest (Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Justin Mader, Robert LaSardo) are barely characterised maniacal kooks we don’t mind getting splatted and burned in the many, many car-cruching pile-ups. Death Race 2000 was the first film to inspire a computer game, but Anderson (of the Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil franchises) naturally defaults to game-esque business like the sword and shield symbols on the course which activate defensive or offensive weapons in the cars when drivers pass over them. Statham is well cast as the muscles behind another man’s mask, but doesn’t get a showcase to match the Transporter films or (especially) Crank.

As a noisy, well-choreographed demolition derby with speech balloon dialogue it’s watchable, and indeed one of Anderson’s better films, but it shows how much less vital exploitation cinema is these days. In 1975, Frankenstein wanted to overthrow an unjust society; in 2008, the society is still hideously wrong (riot cops show up at the mass steelyard layoff to start the trouble they’re paid to suppress) but all the hero wants is to escape to Mexico and run an auto junkyard with his gal pal, gay pal and baby daughter.

Death Race 2 (2010)

A prequel to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, this shows how a privatised prison system threw up a gladiatorial contest (Death Game) which evolved into Death Race thanks to pushy producer-presenter September Jones (Lauren Cohan).  And how convicted armed robber Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) became the first Frankenstein; NB: Carl Lucas is the real name of Marvel’s blaxploitation style hero Luke Cage, who also underwent an experiment in prison, and Goss has previous Frankenstein form playing the Monster in a Hallmark production.

It overloads with plot – not only does Lucas rise and survive and become transformed (wearing an iron mask after a disfiguring crash), but his ex-pal Markus Kane (Sean Bean) has put a million dollar bounty on his head that means other contestants are trying to cash in by killing him.  We see a tiny bit of Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 on TV and there’s a smidgen more of that film’s satire here – including a funny bit when a brutal racer echoes Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe by killing his own pit crew and is fatally stabbed in the eye by his female sidekick for calling her a bitch (though this character is barely established, she’s still got more going for her than official heroine Tanit Phoenix).  Following Bartel’s dictum that a film like this should end with someone who’s been irritating all the way through getting run over, Frankenstein backs into September, making way for the Joan Allen character (seen as a photo) to take over.  Robin Shou reprises his role, so he’s not going to die, and the rest of the cons are the expected maniacs, Aryans, black dudes, etc.  Danny Trejo, an iconic star in Machete, is back in his straight-to-DVD box as the equivalent of the Ian McShane character.

Director Roel Reiné (Bear) stages a few reasonable stunts and action scenes (it’s certainly one up on the mockbuster Death Racers, which it resembles in a franchise-will-eat-itself fashion) but the Anderson-Tony Giglio script is disposable, the performances by the numbers (Ving Rhames is a baddie in a suit), some elements don’t make sense (the posed shots of the racers with their cars is at odds with the idea that they have to fight even to get the machine of their choice) and we’d still rather see the original.

Death Race 3 Inferno (2012)

‘Any rebroadcast or unauthorised use is punishable by death – or life in prison if under the age of fifteen.’

At least this third entry in the series, from the Death Race 2 team of director Roel Reiné and writer Tony Giglio (from a story by Death Race’s Paul W.S. Anderson), gets out of that bloody prison and on the road … though it complicates yet again the business of who the scarred driver under the leather mask (dubbed by David Carradine) was at the beginning of Death Race.  The last prequel suggested that Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) was Frankenstein, since it ended with him getting scarred and putting on the mask.  Here, however, his face gets fixed early on and there’s a tiresome thread about his loyal pit crew – Katrina (Tanit Phoenix), Lists (Fred Koehler) and Goldberg (Danny Trejo) – being ticked off he hasn’t told them he’s still alive.

In the wider world, DR head honcho Weyland (Ving Rhames) is bought out by aggressive, nasty British tycoon Niles York (Dougray Scott, giving it all he’s got, like Sean Bean in DR2), who wants to franchise the convict gladiatorial race game worldwide and trasfers Frankenstein to a penitentiary in the Kalahari to kick it off.  This means that the film doesn’t have to pretend not to be shot in South Africa and the course can run through spectacular natural scenery, a slum township and areas controlled by killer warlords – the stunts play better against the wide-open spaces and it has a definite Mad Max vibe.  It’s still a problem that all the other racers (and their navigators) are undercharacterised – the racers get their names onscreen for a posed photo (one is called Nero, a shout-out to the original Roger Corman-Paul Bartel Death Race 2000, and Michelle von Schaik plays the first female racer, Olga von Braun, who isn’t a patch on Mary Woronov) and the hot navigator babes compete for slots in a cage fight (the narrator says they include an IRA bomber, a hit woman and twin serial killers, but only the twins are identifiable).

At the end, in some plotty business which might well be above the heads of the hard-knuckle fans, Carl and the gang escape, leaving a newly-scarred York to become the interim Frankenstein.  A  photo of Ian McShane serves to indicate that this still joins up with the original.  Robin Shou has his third go-round as 14K, but still hasn’t got a character to play.

Death Race Beyond Anarchy (2018)

The Paul W.S. Anderson Death Race managed two Roel Reine/Luke Goss sequels before Roger Corman exercised his original rights to turn out a Death Race 2050 … which seems to have bumped this fourquel, based on a story by Anderson and Tony Giglio (who scripted the Reine duo), back a few years.  It’d probably make sense now to have the Frankensteins of both iterations of the franchise duel head to head, though enthusiasm for all things Death Race-related are presumably flagging … made in 2016 and out in 2018, this feels like more of a throwback, with its post-industrial Bulgarian locations, nu-metal soundtrack, acres of tattoos and silicone, tipped-in Danny Trejo cameo (also a holdover) and general air of been-here-before gladiator gearhead action.  Anderson reconfigured Bartel’s race, based on a story by Ib Melchior, into a remake of The Longest Yard, melding the future murdersport subgenre (cf: The Running Man, Rollerball) with the future hellprison subgenre (cf: Fortress, Terminal Island); this stirs in an Escape From New York angle as the new hell-prison (‘the Sprawl’, a William Gibson reference) is a walled-off abandoned city and hero Connor Gibson (bearded whisperer Zach McGowna) turns out to be a special ops hit man sent into the place to take out tyrant top con Frankenstein (voiced by Nolan North, bodied by Velislav Pavlov), who is becoming a pain to the evil Weyland Corporation who own the prison (and whose unbeaten record isn’t doing much for Trejo’s death race gambling concern).

Oddly, the film acts as if it’s a big secret that Gibson isn’t a con when that’s given away in all the blurbs … though there’s a twist later when it turns out there’s a second hitter in play, Gipsy Rose (Yennis Cheung).  It’s a new notion that the masked racer champ Frankenstein is a baddie, modelled on the villains of Mad Max 2 and Mad Max Fury Road, rather than a revolutionary, though the finale finds a good guy taking on his identity.  It’s a surprisingly long film, with a bunch of characters in the race and keeping the plot wheels moving.  Series regular Fred Koehler is back as Lists but Danny Glover moves into the fixer/marquee guest star role as Baltimore Bob, while Gibson pals around with two women – a relatively innocent and imperilled love interest (Christien Marzano) and a sassy tough navigator (Cassie Clare).  And we get a whole new raft of doomed racers, including one returning name from 1975 (Jasette Amos as Matilda the Hun) and Wacky Races-type novelty acts (Johnny Law in a jacked-up police car, the scarcely-likely-to-survive Nazi Bastard, an undertaker, etc).  Directed by sequelmaker Don Michael Paul, who has contributed with proficiency but little distinction to the Lake Placid, Jarhead, Sniper, Tremors, Kindergarten Cop, Scorpion King and Bulletproof sagas,

… and, for completism’s sake …

Death Race 2050 (2017)

‘Cheerleaders don’t come to practice.’ ‘See, we should be recording this. Vintage macho bullshit is ratings gold.’ Death Race 2050

The burst of sequelage to the Paul W.S. Anderson Death Race having crashed and burned, rights to Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 – itself spun from a brief Ib Melchior short story – reverted to Roger Corman, who has got writer-director G.J. Echternkamp – best known for the autobiographical documentary Frank and Cindy, about his parents, and a fiction film remake of it – to mount something much closer in tone and premise to Bartel’s lively satire.

In 2050, the Chairman of the United Corporations of America (Malcolm McDowell with a Trump wig but a whole other awful comedy personality) presides over the transcontinental Death Race, with champion Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) again in the lead and resistance plant Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller) in the passenger seat (here, drivers don’t have navigators but livestreaming documentarians), the rules slightly amended so pedestrians still get very gruesomely splattered by cars mounted with serrated knives but in the gun-loving sections of the country they get to shoot back, and a few plot wrinkles included to surprise those who know the original well.  It manages to be more cynical even than Bartel’s vision, in that resistance leader Alexis Hamilton (Yancy Butler) turns out to be in cahoots with the Chairman and the violent revolution is as much a part of the show as the on-road carnage … and there are updated satirical targets.  96% unemployment is part of the rationale for this society and racers include hysterical genegeneered stud Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), who is consumed by sexual doubts; white-hating music artist Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku), who turns out to be well-spoken when not rapping her big hit ‘Drive Drive Kill Kill’; cult-leading Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey), who claims God in on her side; and a self-driving AI car who has a crisis of identity and conscience.

Bennett (Deathstroke on Arrow) is a good fit for the role of Frankenstein, amusingly hard-bitten but with just enough nuance to be funny and bring some feeling to the crass, ruthless charade.  Otherwise, everyone overacts and gurns even more than Bartel’s cast – Charlie Farrell and Shanna Olson are the obnoxious commentators – but the jokes aren’t quite as sharp and the action is gorier but never exciting.  It’s hard to dislike a film so committed to being scurrilous and offensive.





One thought on “Film review – Death Race (2008) and sequels

  1. Charles Prepolec
    From the trailer it looked more like The Running Man, with cars thrown in, than a remake of Death Race 2000. Couldn’t get me into the cinema for this one.

    Phil Newton
    I have to say I really feared the worst with this film but found it to be a surprisingly enjoyable (if brainless) viewing experience, especially with an enthusiastic FrightFest audience. Shame they ditched the original’s race/points system, but I have to concede that I had a lot of fun with this one.

    Simon John Ball
    Loved the first film, bit wary about this one

    Posted by kimnewman | March 9, 2022, 11:30 am

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