Death Race : Beyond Anarchy
After the disappointing outing DR3 was, DR4 opens to an encouraging back to basics approach. We’re back in a prison (albeit a different one – a city walled off) and Frankenstein is back to a brutal race. We get a quick recap with shots from the Statham film, to set the stage.Death Race still exists, but has been made illegal and gone underground, broadcast on the dark web from the walled off prison city (for a prison city though, they seem to be pretty well off with plenty of gas, bullets and booze. It’s not the wasteland Escape From New York was).
I’m not sure what Danny Glover is doing slumming in this film, but Danny Trejo makes a welcome appearance as Goldberg, now a bookie in Mexico and our real link to the outside world. He funnels supplies into the prison and takes bets on the race. We really get to see the race through his eyes. Frankenstein looks more terrifying than ever. The entire affair has more of a Mad Max feel to it, possibly stemming from the success of Fury road (released a year prior), and the opening treats us to gore at horror movie levels. Chainsaws, beheadings, this new Frankenstein is out of control, to the extent that the government is ready to move in and take over. Our hero this time around is Conner, a ringer snuck in to take out Frank in the race. He’s also about as charismatic s a block of wood, with a somewhat bored expression perpetually plastered on his face.
Of course it’s a new director so it’s a new vision for the series. The more stylized violence is a departure from the series. The fights are far more martial arts based, not the brutal street brawling that Statham was directed to do in Death Race. Also a departure is that Frankenstein is brought in as the straight up villain. Finally, the running time is a big departure, clocking in at nearly two hours. I’m not sold on the longer run time, I tend to think these things should stick to 90 minuets. It dosen’t quite pass the watch test, but there’s enough blood and antics to keep me amused.
It’s interesting to look at the cars. They’re evolving; not just guns, but fins and more spikes – you can see how they are growing into the cars we will see in DR2000. It’s ramshackle, something you can even see it in the tombstone on the back of Connor’s car. It feels welded and patched together, not the solid block of steel we’re used to. Still, it lends us a brilliant sequence where they are building the car and getting things ready. It’s good stuff, bonding the characters without lengthy exposition. And it makes me absolutely fall in love with the sassy, punky navigator for this movie. She still gorgeous, but it’s different kind of pretty. Not the glamorous street girls we’ve gotten used to in the past. Interestingly enough, she’s not the love interest for Connor, she’s really just there to help him with the car.
Of course, before you get a car, you have to fight. The gladiatorial bits are even more prevalent here, with both a dirt bike challenge and a hand to hand one, each streamed in all their bloody glory.
They get out of the cars a lot. Even though the race is really only the last half hour of the film, it seems like they are constantly finding reasons to get out of the cars and shoot at each other.
It’s not a bad film, certainly a step up from three and the twist at the end was actually well done. It’s worth a look, but be careful who you watch it with. There’s so much nudity in this thing that there’s characters who spend more time with their clothes off than on.
Death Race 3
Death Race 2 ended with the creation of Frankenstein. DR3 opens with Frankenstein having won his fourth race. One more and he goes free. There’s just one small problem. The race has changed hands and the new owner isn’t as keen on keeping that bargain.
Between the films, it appears the pit crew never knew that Frankenstein was actually Lucas – their fallen comrade. His identity is revealed in the opening minuets of this entry though, along with the fact that he’s been getting some reconstructive surgery to fix his face (so Luke Goss doesn’t have to wear makeup or a mask for this whole film)
All of this feels very episodic. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was filmed back to back with DR2 because of how easily the characters slip back into their relationships. I suppose we can chalk that up to this film being made by Roel Reiné, the director of the previous film. We’re still following his vision, which is pretty close to what Anderson wanted when he made Death Race. The continuity makes this comfort food. Still, there’s some new faces with Dougray Scott taking over for Laurie Cohan as the villain. After he wrests control of Ving Rhames’ company and acquires the Death Race, he takes a very hands on approach to administration, chewing the scenery every chance he gets.
The Death Race has a new twist. The navigators have to fight for their positions, echoing the Death match of the previous film. It’s an interesting twist to let us know that all bets are off and the rules don’t matter anymore. The team is shipped off to Africa to race against new prisoners in a desert track. Its a different kind of race, that takes us through a village. The residents and the warlords are none to happy to see them and It gives us a glimpse of what the race will eventually becoming Death Race 2000.
It also presents us with a problem. At this point in the sequels, you have to do things that are new and innovative, things we’ve never seen before. This is just a step down from “Death Race in space!”. The problem is that we’re still in prequel mode, with this taking place before the Statham Death Race or the Corman DR2000. Innovation feels out of place. The scriptwriters have just about given up too, simply content to drop Rob Zombie levels of f-bombs instead of crafting actual dialogue and cramming as much sex as they can into the halftime intermission. Moreover the bigger wrecks and explosions come at the cost of the racing action. The desert track not only completely changes the color palette, but it also slows things down.
The ending feels very contrived. It’s an attempt to get things in line with the continuity established in the Statham Death Race while attempting to give us a satisfying conclusion with this crew. It’s certainly not what I expected, with a voice over recapping and explaining how everything fits together (kind of like the end of Oceans 11 or a Sherlock Holmes story) but it doesn’t drag the film down too much.
I have to give this film a bit of a break, with each installment the budget has been slashed (I don’t get how that works anyhow. Seems like you should get more money for a sequel, not less) and the move overseas was likely budgetary rather than aesthetic. Still, it’s one of the weakest films in this run, and that watered down feeling from DR2 is even more keenly felt here. This one is a safe skip, and I would have bet it was the end of the road for this series. In fact, it was, but only for a little while.
Death Race 2
Death Race 2, the sequel to Death Race, is actually the prequel to Death Race which is the prequel to Death Race 2000. …Okay. I think I have that straight.
Opening this thing on Danny Trejo is a good sign. And is that Sean Bean in the credit listing? I didn’t realize he was in this!
The film begins with a riot – basically trying for that bit of deleted story Paul Anderson talked about in the commentary for one. I can’t help but notice that the prison’s owner, unnamed in the previous film is now being referred to as the Wayland corporation. It looks like someone is trying to place this in the Aliens universe.
Our driver for this film is Lucas, a Jason Statham lookalike who goes down for armed robbery and murder. Inside prison he discovers the Death Matches going on – televised gladiator fights between randomly selected prisoners. It’s interesting to see the elements in the death matches that carry over to the death race. Power ups exist here too. Hit the panel, grab the weapon. The matches have the same slick TV productions and sports announcers. It’s easy to see how it evolved.
The mastermind of this is Laurie Cohen in her pre-Walking Dead days. Almost strange to see her glamored out with makeup and that full long hair. I didn’t even recognize her until I skimmed the credits. She sees Luke driving and hatches the idea of creating the Death Race.
We don’t get to the race (in it’s prototypical state) until nearly an hour in, but once we do, you’ll find the cars look familiar. There’s less explanation and they seem less personalized to the driver, but once we hit the track, we’re back on familiar territory, with racing that is just as frenetic as ever.
Don’t expect to see much of Frakenstien here. We get a bit at the very end when they show the origin of the character. It’s rushed, not quite what I expected, but it works.
In general, the film feels a tad watered down from the previous. The new cast feel like replacements, they’re fun, but lack the gravitas of Staham and Ian McShane. Nevertheless, it’s just as entertaining as it’s predecessor, and makes for a good sequel. It promises a good series.
The first thing you notice about Death Race is how desaturated and gritty it is, particularly compared to the bright colors of Death Race 2000. DR2k is a cartoon, where as this remake is a comic book.
We begin establishing that Death race is a competition that happens at an island prison in a dystopian future where the economy is depressed. Jason Statham’s character is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the prison, then gets drafted to be the new star racer, Frankenstein (replacing the previous masked driver who died in the last race). Fans of Statham need not worry though, the mask isn’t on much. It comes off in the car, the prision yard and in the garage. It’s really there only to establish that he’s carrying on the legacy of the legendary racer.
In the navigator’s seat next to him is the ridiculously hot Natalie Martine. The skin tight hip hugger jeans and low cut belly shirt over a gravity defying push up bra seem out of place for prison wear. Looking at her perfect bouncy hair I think I’d be willing to go to jail just for her salon privileges.
The cars here however are not pretty. No lizard scale paint job or oversized Bowie knives here; these are down and dirty gun metal gray. All cannons and steel plating as they jockey for position and attempt to mow down their opponents with brakes and bullets. The racing action in this film sets the bar, above even more mainstream contemporaries like the Fast and the Furious. They put you in the middle of the action, a kinetic experience punctuated by violent attacks and burn outs.
Adding to the video game feel, the race way has power up panels (which look like sewer covers) that activate each car’s accessories. you can’t use that Gatling gun or your oil slick unless you’ve grabbed one of these power ups first. far from being just gimmicky, this device actually helps drive the story and ups the peril.
Death Race is one of those rare remakes that works, taking the basic concept then going it’s own direction with it. But is it a remake really? I got a nice two disc set that includes 2&3 on one disc and the first film on the other – along with a director’s commentary. According to director Paul Anderson, this is actually meant to be a prequel, showing the origins of the Death Race before it became the colorful national pastime we see in Death Race 2000. In fact, he takes it a step further, describing a part of the story that had been cut – a riot at the prison was captured by security cameras and accidentally webcast. It garnered such attention that they started having regular organized fights there, broadcast world wide, and this is what eventually evolved into the Death Race.
I like this reading. I like the idea that Death Race is part of the whole narrative, because it makes me feel less guilty about the fact that given the choice between watching Death Race and Death Race 2000….I’m going to choose this Statham film every time.
Death Race 2000
Long considered a classic, the thing about Death Race 2000 is that it’s the kind of movie that could only be made in the 70’s. And of course if you can remember the 70’s, you weren’t there. Well, I was there. But I was five as the seventies rolled into the 80’s so I don’t have the nostalgia for it that some do.
Still, there’s something about Corman in the Seventies that allows you to get away with David Carradine in a mask and cape, or Sylvester Stallone driving a car with a giant knife on the hood. Visually, this thing is a comic book. Yet it’s easy to see how the violence in this movie would have been a little out there for 70’s audiences. Today, in the era of Saw, running down civilians and tossing a smidge of blood here and there is mild. In that era where transgressive cinema was really finding itself, senseless violence was a little more shocking.
In this story about a much hyped annual race between lethal contestants Carradine (the black cloaked champion dubbed “Frankenstien because he’s been put together so many times after too many wrecks) chews the scenery as he is want to do, even as Stallone (in a role his agent probably should have run screaming to the hills from) grumps through the competition in a stylized 30’s gangster pimp suit. It’s not just race to the finish, it’s a competition to murder your opponents and as many innocent bystanders as possible in order to achieve a higher score.
The thing is I don’t hate it. I appreciate it on a classic film level and of course I revere Corman. But being raised on Splatter and being a fan of racing games like Carmegeddon (much the same premise, but with more wrecks and blood) this feels a little slow and tame for me. I’m glad to have seen it and I wouldn’t necessarily change the channel if it came up on TV one night.
Not until the commercials anyhow.
Death Race Franchise
I was well into my thirties, pushing forty really, before I saw Death Race 2000. I have no idea what took so long either. Some films just fall behind the bookshelf – you know, the stuff you always mean to watch but never actually get around too? Death Race was like that for me.
Doing up my reviews, I realized something else. It may be a generational thing. I missed Death Race by at least half a decade. There were no commercials or advertising blitz for it to pique my interest, and it wasn’t one of the movies that constantly played on late night UHF like the Death Wish films and the Eastwood westerns. I think it more went by unnoticed, never germinating the nostalgia in me that it might have if I were about five years older.
Still, I’m a Corman fan and I remember being vaguely aware of the Statham reboot, understanding that yes, they were indeed connected. Seems like it’s time to hit all of these at once, especially with #4 being released just a couple years ago.
So let’s kick off this years franchise focus with the Death Race films. Come along as we look at the good, the bad, and the REALLY bad.