Death Race

In 2008, Paul W.S. Anderson write and directed Death Race, a film “inspired by” Death Race 2000. This time around, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the completely randomly named Terminal Island. This is the location of the annual Death Race in which convicts serving life sentences are offered a chance of freedom by winning a three-day race of armed and armoured cars around the island.

Because it makes complete sense that if you bring together the most violent and amoral criminals in a society, the most violent and most amoral is the one that should be released.

Ames is is offered a choice by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen): to race as the popular mask-wearing (but now dead) champion, Frankenstein or never see his baby daughter again. Of course he joins the race.

Death Race isn’t really a remake of Death Race 2000 but it does draw inspiration, and some character names, from the earlier film and in doing so does invite comparison. This is unfortunate because it’s not as good… not by a long shot.

Certainly this is a much slicker film and special effects technologies have progressed much in the past 40 years. But Death Race also feels like a much smaller film than its predecessor and I think the setting is a large part of this.

While Death Race 2000 took place on the open road, with everyone a potential victim, Death Race restricts itself to a prison complex so that the only victims are also villains. This film also lacks the black humour of its predecessor and, even with a couple of cursory nods towards a dystopian premise, it really does feel like a much more generic action film.

And if you really want to see Jason Statham delivering vehicular carnage, you’d be a lot better off watching The Transporter.

Death Race 2000

Thomas Paine was a political activist, writer and revolutionary. He authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution and inspired the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. After starting one revolution, he moved to France and became deeply involved in the French Revolution.

In Death Race 2000, Thomasina Paine leads the resistance to the authoritarian Bipartisan Party which controls the economically collapsed US. This party is led by the cult-like “Mr. President” who has merged politics and religion to form a police state in which the masses are kept distracted by the bloody spectacle of the annual Transcontinental Road Race. This is a coast to coast race in which points are scored not just for coming first, but also for the number of people killed along the way.

The film covers the 20th such race and the five contestants include Frankenstein (David Carradine), the only two-time winner, and “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), his rival. Also in the mix, this time around, is Paine’s resistance who are targeting the race for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

Death Race 2000 is very much of its time, and yet it still manages to strike a chord that is relevant today. The film is gratuitously violent, with much of the violence played for laughs. It is also unashamedly exploitative and, being produced by Roger Corman, is under no illusions as to what sort of film it is.

The film does, however, retain a very dark sense of humour and a satirical streak that suggests that the US is heading in a direction in which violent sports and terrible television can be used to distract the masses into accepting structural inequality and near religious devotion to a leader.

I was going to make a remark about the current US president at this point. Given, however, that this film was released all the way back in 1975, it points to Trump being less of an aberration and more the result of forty-plus years of dysfunctional politics.