It's the year 2000 and there's only one sport left – the Death Race – a three day race across America in which five cars compete not only to cross the finish line first but also run down as many innocent pedestrians and try and take each other out. People's favourite Frankenstein (David Carradine), a disfigured black clad rider, hopes to win yet again but his rivalry with Machine Gun Joe (a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone), and attempts by the “Resistance” to halt the race for good, look set to scupper the race.
A big influence on my love of action movies as a kid was a book called Action! by Marshall Julius – which was essentially Halliwell's film guide for action movies (I highly recommend picking up a copy). It covered the genres golden age from the mid 70s to mid 90s rating each film with guns instead of stars. With a lot of film guides I tend to only agree with about half the reviews but with this one I agreed with every single review, it was like some future version of me went back in time and wrote it. Anyway, I ended up trying to track down every film the book reviewed. One that stuck out was Death Race 2000, a little b-movie from 1975 that was awarded the maximum five out of five guns. I eventually tracked it down on an old VHS and damn was it a great film. It blew my 15 year old mind.
What's so great about Death Race 2000? Well it's the same reason Robocop's so great – it's an action movie on one hand and a satire on the other. You can watch it with your brain switched off or with your brain switched on and enjoy it equally. The satire is over the top and absurd – one great scene has two elderly commentators explain how many points you get for running over men, women, children and elderly people.
The performances and budget aren't anything to write home about. The sets and cars look cheap and shoddy but that doesn't really matter. Director Paul Bartel stretches the presumably meagre budget to almost breaking point. It almost helps that the film is so low budget because it gives the violence less impact. A higher budget film would have seemed much more seedy and sleazy. Not to say this film doesn't have it's share of sleaze. There's quite a fair bit of nudity halfway through where the racers stop for the night and get a massage.
David Carradine portrays Frankenstein as a measured, calculated fighter. I've always found him to be something of a strange leading man being that he's very thin and wiry, not classically handsome but he does have a lot of charisma and he treats this role as if it's Shakespeare. It's fun to see Sly Stallone pre-Rocky too, and playing a villain no less. It's a shame he doesn't really talk about this movie as he's pretty good in it.
A lot of people compare this film to Wacky Races and I've got to say that's pretty accurate, it's a violent version of Wacky Races. Each rider has a distinct personality – Nero the Hero (Roman emperor), Mathilda the Hun (Nazi), Machine Gun Joe (Gangster).
There's also some great twists in the film which I won't spoil here. Needless to say Frankenstein is far from the twisted maniac that the public makes him out to be. I'd almost say that the film is one of the quaintest violent films ever and possibly the best film Roger Corman ever produced.
Death Race (2008)
When it was announced they planned to remake Death Race I was apprehensive. Early reports said that Tom Cruise was going to play the lead and all I could think of was that self indulgent Days of Thunder flick about NASCAR racing from the early 1990s.
It seemed to be in development hell for several years until finally it got announced that Paul W S Anderson was directing the film. Now a lot of reviewers hate Anderson but I sort of like him. I think he's got a certain flair for big budget action film but doesn't over edit them like some of his contemporaries (Michael Bay). Mortal Kombat, Soldier, Event Horizon and Resident Evil are all enjoyable flicks – I'd never call them art but they are fun to watch. There's a couple in his back catalogue that I didn't like, such as Alien vs Predator but on the whole he's okay.
That said when this film came out in the cinema I steadfast refused to go with my friends to the cinema to see it. I guess it was partly out of some sort of loyalty to the original film, partly out of the fact it was only a 15 certificate. That and I've never been a massive fan of Jason Statham – I mean where did he come from? How did he become the only action movie hero of the 00s?
So I ended up begrudgingly catching this on DVD a year later and actually it's not bad. It's a much different film to the original and borrows a fair bit from other films as well – yeah, it's a Frankenstein's Monster of action movies (how appropriate!) – the biggest influence is actually The Running Man.
Statham plays Jensen Ames, an innocent man who is framed for murdering his wife. He gets sent to a special prison called Terminal Island where prisoners are forced to race in a pay per view event called Death Race. Five drivers race against each other in tricked out cars. Pads on the race track activate either shields or weapons for the car and winning five races supposedly wins you your freedom. Overseeing the whole operation is Hennessey (Joan Allen), a sadistic warden who gets Statham to step into the recently deceased shoes (and mask) of Frankenstein, the people's favourite racer.
Yeah, actually this is film is pretty fun and pushes the limits of its 15 certificate. Again, Anderson recognises that pushing the gore level too high would put people off the film. The race is possibly better thought out than the original film, and the action is pretty well photographed considering it takes place in very generic looking abandoned warehouses.
Statham plays his usual hard man self but it's the supporting characters that really round out the film. Ian McShane (who plays Statham's head mechanic) and Joan Allen are two fantastic actors who should be in much more high brow stuff than this but they are both clearly having a lot of fun slumming it.
Like I said this film really just takes the name and a few of the concepts of the original film so it never really runs the risk of being too heavily compared to its predecessor. The satire is a little more blunt in this film. There's a lot of obvious parallels with the current obsession with reality TV but Anderson is no Paul Verhoeven (now there's someone who should have tried to tackle this film).
The film doesn't quite kick into high gear until the halfway but as a whole the flick is a pretty fun way to waste 100 minutes.
Death Race 2 (2010)
With the remake only making decent, not spectacular, numbers the decision was made to go direct to video with Death Race 2. Now the first thing to point out is that the title's a bit misleading – this really should have been called Death Race: The Beginning because it's all set before the Statham film.
Luke Goss plays a getaway driver for crime boss Markus Kane (played by Sean Bean). When a bank job goes wrong Goss is caught and sent to the Terminal Island prison that is run for profit by the Weyland Corporation. As this is a prequel the Death Race hasn't been invented yet, instead, there's something called Death Match, a two man gladiatorial brawl with weapons that is televised. When one match turns into a full scale riot the Weyland Corporation decide to revise the concept as a car race. Goss decides to step up and enter the race however he doesn't count on Kane putting a bounty on his head (in case he tries to cut a deal for reduced sentence by implicating Kane).
For all DTV films you've got to drop your expectations a little. This film was made for $7 million while its predecessor was made for $45 million. There was no way that it was going to top it but by god if it doesn't try. Hell, it almost succeeds. This is one of the best DTV sequels I've seen in a long time. What's nice is that the film was obviously made with a lot of care for continuity. The idea of starting off with a Death Match before moving to the Death Race is quite cool and means the film doesn't feel just like a massive retread of the original (like a lot of DTV sequels). They also bring back Fred Koehler as Lists, the autistic pit crew guy and Robin Shou as triad member 14K, who both give the film a nice dynamic.
The film also benefits for some more good famous stars slumming it - Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo. Of all of them Trejo comes out the best as Goldberg, the self proclaimed 'Last Mexican Jew' - “I killed all the others,” he tells Goss. As the lead role Goss is okay, he's a decent actor but never really looks that intimidating. He's just a little too preened and skinny. As fighter he's great, as shown in Hellboy II and Blade II, but he's got a little more to go before he can become a great b-movie hero.
All in all, the whole prequel aspect is good, it gives the film a bit of a downbeat ending but makes it more exciting. It's weird you sort of know where the film's going and don't at the same time. To say more would ruin in the ending but needless to say it's pretty much ties up to the opening of the Statham film.
The car races aren't in the same league as the Statham version but they are still pretty good and again, photographed quite well. Director Roel Reine is something of a rising star in the DTV world – he's done some great work with Seagal in Pistol Whipped (aka The Marker) and this film. Next up on his plate is Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption, let's hope he can stay on a winning streak.
I'd say this film is a must of fans of the Statham flick. It's a very cool companion piece. Just try to ignore the little errors in the film such as extras in the riot scene who clearly aren't hitting each other and the fact Goss uses a two door car for a four man bank job.
Now I've got to say I tried tracking the spin-off comics down but my wallet only stretches so far. Death Race 2020 was published in 1995 and ran for 8 issues under Roger Corman's Cosmic Comics imprint. It was written by Pat Mills and picked up the story 20 years later with Frankenstein having to return to racing after his term as president. Though I haven't read it I've got to say that Pat Mills, who wrote for futuristic satire comic 2000 AD, sounds like a great fit.
Maze Death Race was released for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1983 but only took the cover artwork and racing theme.
More famously the Carmageddon series (Carmageddon, Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now and Carmageddon 3: TDR 2000) reused a lot of the car designs unofficially for their games and kept the theme of having to run down pedestrians. Of all the games, the first one is probably the only good one. All were a little buggy and never that fun to play. True story, I was once playing this game at university when someone called me to say they'd just been in a car crash. I don't think I've played the game since.