Death Race (2008)

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“Get ready for a killer ride!”

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring Jason Statham,  Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen and Ian McShane

Following the complete breakdown of the US Justice System in 2012, prisons are now for-profit organisations showing pay-per-view blood sports, the most popular of which is Terminal Island Penitentiary’s Death Race.

With ratings falling and masked fan favourite Frankenstein dead, prison director Hennessy (Allen) has former driver Jensen Ames (Statham) framed for the murder of his wife in order to bring him in as the new Frankenstein. Despite his reluctance, and with the help of pit boss Coach (McShane), Ames must try to win just one race to earn his freedom, but for the prison there is no profit in the loss of their star driver.

Faced with hostility on and off the track, and the inevitable double-cross from Hennessy, Ames struggles to emerge the victor of a game with no winners.

What’s wrong with it?

Originally conceived as a remake or sequel and eventual pitched a s kind of thematic prequel to Death Race 2000, the already broad satire of the original (think of an episode of Whacky Races, but one where the course ran through populous areas and Penelope Pitstop scored points for every civilian she ran over) is boiled down to ‘they bet on people dying, yo’ under Anderson’s deft hand. In addition, by switching from a cross-country to a circuit race, the film loses much of the variety of the original, and sacrifices tension for close-up action.

Apart from the blood and rust coloured graphics of the Death Race online coverage – which kind of makes you wish they’d included form Starship Troopers-style infomercials and newsreel to break the monotony – the palette is extremely grey, and unless you’re a pretty serious gear head there isn’t much to pick between the various armoured, led-spewing cars on the track. Only Machine Gun Joe’s (Gibson) immense Dodge Ram really stands out.

The female navigators – of whom only Case (Natalie Martinez) has any character, or indeed lines – are there purely to sex things up visually, which would be bad enough, but when they are then shot, gored, crushed or burned to death during the race, they are left as nothing but voiceless, dead sex objects. A major plot point revolves around Hennessy suborning Case with the promise of her freedom, but this is not developed by giving them any scenes together, leaving the film to fail the Bechdel test on all levels.

Finally, the other drivers don’t really go much beyond stereotypes: Angry black guy, cool Chinese guy, neo-Nazi thug, crazy Latino etc.

What’s right with it?

The race scenes are okay, with the driving bits significantly better than any part where the cars are shooting at each other, where the film signally fails to present any kind of ‘dogfighting’ in favour of lots of straight lines and flying brass.

The plot, although ludicrous, is pretty consistent and, with a couple of exceptions, makes sense in its own mad world.

The main cast is well put together. Statham is typically likable as Ames, McShane’s institutionalised Coach makes for a great mentor  figure and Allen is an effective and nicely atypical villain.

How bad is it really?

There’s a fair bit of dumb fun to be had with this film, but for the most part we’ve seen it done before, and better. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t quite earn its nastier moments and the hypersexualisation of the mostly-doomed navigators is uncomfortable to say the least.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Realising that he is dead, Triad driver 14K, whose previous dialogue has all been in dubbed Chinese (which language or dialect, I could not say), lets loose with an English language ‘Fuck me’… which is subtitled into Chinese . What can I say; I like subtitle humour.

What’s up with…?

  • Case getting her release papers in advance of her betrayal? It hardly seems Hennessey’s style.
  • The sudden introduction of the Dreadnought into the race? It’s like throwing a tiger onto the ring in the middle of a heavyweight boxing match. Sure, it’ll liven things up and probably get you a short-term boost to your ratings, but it’s not going to please the fans, especially the betting public.
  • Mask aside, anyone mistaking a curvy, five-foot-eight Latina for Jason Statham?
  • Likewise, anyone not checking a package being sent to the warden of a prison from the inside, before putting the bomb on her desk?

Ratings

Production values – Moderately slick, with some good explosions, but the muted palette confuses at times. 11

Dialogue and performances – The main cast are solid, especially Allen and McShane, but the support is highly variable. The absence of dialogue of any kind for the background female characters is telling. 14

Plot and execution – The plot is extremely basic, but largely consistent. The execution falls down on the lack of variation in the race scenes and in particular the failure to do anything with the shoot-outs that isn’t having one car drive in a straight line behind another car driving in a straight line. 13

Randomness -Surprisingly sound. There are no complete left-field moments and nothing completely incomprehensible. Only Hennessy’s uncharacteristic and ultimately self-defeating generosity towards Case, and the complete failures of security in the last part of the film stand out. 12

Waste of potential – Well, the pedigree isn’t great. Death Race 2000 is a cult classic, but not all that good of a film. It is a shame that we couldn’t get more satire from such a rich vein as pay-per-view and the morality of viewing dangerous sports, but ultimately if this film has an overall sin, it is in being just okay in a much duller way than 20009

Overall 59%

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