Death Race. Don’t you love it when everything you need to know about a film is right in the title? Yeah, it’s kind of like when people show up for your birthday and they don’t bother wrapping your present. Instead, it’s still inside the same plastic bag some employee chucked it in when your friend stopped off at the Wal-Mart on the way to your house. However, I felt obligated to watch Death Race because I am a Jason Statham fan. I’ve enjoyed him in almost everything I’ve seen him in, especially The Bank Job where we see him again as a hard working, blue collar husband and father just trying to make ends meet.
On this particular occasion, I’m treating myself with the unrated version of the film on Blu-Ray. As you know, I always prefer to watch a film in as almost unrated, uncut version as possible. Later, I’ll watch the theatrical version and compare on my own.
What little education I did obtain about film, film history, and film theory tells me that any film that begins with narration or textual preface has tried to accomplish too much in too little time. For fear the audience will be immediately lost the producers have instead put this narration or textual preface in the film to catch you up to where you should be. Death Race is no different, but perhaps you’ll forgive it as you would a football star if he didn’t know exactly how to answer a question in biology – for ultimately, you’re dealing with the same animal here.
Death Race begins with the following “2012 – The United States ecomony collapses. Unemployment hits a record high. Crime rates spiral out of control.” Okay. This is a little close to home, but let’s roll with it. After all, this is an action film, and my policy with any action film is to give it at least 15 minutes before making any hard and fast judgment. It seems only fair. If you like action films, which if you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’ll know I’m a fan, you know there are very few rules: keep the plot linear (simple enough to follow at any point and always moving forward), keep the leading man familiar (if you can’t relate to him, know someone like him, or find him gorgeous the film’s lost), and sell the action. The opening sequence may not immediately win you over, but it will try. Just let go and try to flow with it – they’re just trying to cut to the meat of the story as quickly as possible to keep you interested after the lame textual narrative you’ve just sat through about new gladiators.
What’s more compelling, in light of our own current economic climate, is when Jason Statham (playing Jensen Ames) hits the scene – leaving the steel mill where he works because it is closing down. After receiving a paltry $300 for 120 hours of work — $4/hr if we’re keeping track –, he joins a crowd of men (all in the same position as him) as the SWAT rolls in to…well…roll them.
I love that Jensen has taken the bus home, where his wife busies herself with dinner. This very short scene between Statham and Janaya Stephens playing his wife Suzy is so sweet and intimate.
“300 dollars is all they gave us,” he says quietly, with his back turned to her.
“We’ll make it last,” she says. “We always do.”
They’ve somehow managed to do in less that two minutes what real-life married couples playing onscreen man and wife cannot – they’re chemistry is undeniable, believable. That’s why, when a masked man breaks into their house, kills Suzy, knocks Jensen unconscious and places a bloody kitchen knife in your hand you might find yourself filled with a kind of sympathetic rage. Of course it’s a set up – how else did you think this guy was going to end up in prison, in the Death Race?
Six months later, Jensen is transfered to Terminal Island where Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) produces Death Race. He arrives at night, in the driving rain. The transport driver has a cute little fake Christmas tree on the dashboard. During his booking scene we get quite an eyeful of Statham — he is ripped. I say this out of a sense of awe and amazement (a few moments later, Statham is shown naked from the back, if that’s your thing). When an overly sadistic guard puts him in a cell with three other inmates thinking they’ll shred Statham, what a delight that Jensen is the only man left standing.
What follows here are the establishing shots for the pit crew with whom Jensen will be working – Coach (Ian McShane), Gunner (Jacob Vargas), and Lists (Frederick Koehler). And since it’s his first breakfast in Terminal, of course the brothers of the Brotherhood decide to roll Jensen. “I guess he didn’t like the oatmeal either,” Coach says, returning to his light reading. You may laugh a bit at this, but if you’ll remember the line was killed during the previews and commercials for the film prior to its release (like many of the film’s good lines and action sequences) It’s fine though, because this is the opportunity we need to get him and the warden together.
I’m sorry about this next item, but it’s a point of contention for me. Maybe it will be for you as well. If you’re in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, why would you feel the need to make a deal with the warden to lessen your sentence? Moreover, why would you agree to participate in a game that puts not only the lives of others at risk, but your own as well? That’s right – I’m overthinking this. You’re really only supposed to catch the bit about the Brotherhood wanting now to kill him and the warden threatening to throw him in solitary for the remainder of his sentence.
“I’m offering you your freedom. If that’s not worth risking your life for, what is?” Warden Hennessey says, as if that’s going to seal the deal…it does. All Jensen needs to do is assume the identity of one of the prison’s infamous drivers (voiced by David Carradine in the opening sequence) named Frankenstein. A man so hideously deformed by car crashes, he wears a mask to cover the scars. The rules of Death Race are simple – win five times and win your freedom. Frankenstein has won four times. Despite the fact the race seen at the beginning of the film killed Frankenstein, Warden Hennessey want to keep him alive because he gives the people hope (ratings).
Jensen meets his pit crew and is introduced to the moster – a Mustang fastback that is armored to high heaven and outfitted with oil, smoke, napalm, and machine guns. His race navigator is Case – a woman who will be bussed in from a women’s prison moments before each stage of the three-stage race. Also, while sitting in the yard with his crew, we get a very quick establishing shot of each of the other race contestants. Don’t try to keep track – this is one of the areas where Death Race has forgotten one of the critical rules of the action film: keep the plot linear. Too much information is packed into this scene. To make matters worse, Machine Gun Joe (played by Tyrese Gibson) decides to step up and make a threat against Frank to his crew. Then, just as if we haven’t gotten enough informaiton in this small space of time, two inmates return in a black van with GPS tracking bracelets on their wrists. Jensen recognizes this in a flashback to his wife’s murder during which the killer raised his hand and pulled the trigger on an invisible gun — hanging from his wrist? A GPS tracking bracelet. Too much info. Too many details.
Great soundtrack, though, and in the next scene when Jensen becomes Frank (which, if you think about it, could have been treated with a little more theatre and drama) you’ll feel your mind already starting to dump all of the information the producers of Death Race have tried to shove into your brain. “Let the mask do the work.”
It’s a big deal when the women get bussed in for stage one of the race – especially because Natalie Martinez (who plays Frank’s navigator) is stepping off a bus. I don’t trust this broad from the moment she steps off the bus with that swish in her step. Girl, don’t you know you could be about ready to die?
One thing you’ll not see again is any of those women. In fact, it’s funny because throughout the race, there are big ESPN-style scoreboards with each driver’s name — no mention of the women. Which, personally, I find to be odd. After all, don’t men usually like to keep score where women are involved? At any rate, whoever was responsible for the fake-pay-per-view-style credits for the race did a fantastic job. In fact, its so good, I’m wondering if this was a part of who the idea for the movie remake was sold to producers at Universal.
I’ve never seen Roger Corman’s “Death Race 2000” which, right about now, would be useful only in my ability to throw down differences between the two. However, since I treat films that have been adapted from books and film remakes as their own, unique creative piece I don’t see any point in wondering what the original film is like.
By the time the race gets underway, I’m already calling bullsh*t. After all, even with a navigator (she’s not telling him much about where to go, where to turn, what to do), how would you know where to go – there’s no real track, there are no markings. It’s just – hit the gas, try not to die. Which is fine. But, not when you’re trying to cross a finish line.
The first stage of the race (like the others) has great, quick cuts with fast zoom-in/zoom-out lense movements that make you feel like you’re along for the ride. Unlike a lot of other action films made in recent years, there is none of that handicam feel that will make you queasy. Every inch of the film is smooth as butter and glossy like a magazine — even the cars themselves which should feel gritty and Road Warrior-esque seem somehow come off as shiny what with their tricked out bulletproof glass and lethal arsenal.
Sure. Death Race is special effects heavy. Don’t let it fool you – you will also find unmitigated elements of horror sprinkle throughout. Take for instance the scene in which Grimm is beheaded by Machine Gun Joe’s Dodge Ram truck. I almost lost my cookies, but I watched it in slo-mo because that’s who I am. I like to see as much as possible on my Blu-Ray player, and in this case that’s a whole heck of a lot. There is also a great John Woo-esque moment during stage one of the race in which Machine Gun Joe and Frank drive parallel to one another, shell casings slowly falling to the ground in a blanket.
Of course, many of the things in the film are beyond (way beyond) my level of suspended disbelief, but when you buy the ticket to ride, you need to stay seated until the “fasten seatbelt” light is turned off. I don’t know what the fascination is with the whole “to the death” gameshow theme played by convicts – but I have to say it was done to greater success in Stephen King’s The Running Man. Here, it still doesn’t feel as though the prisoners are being ruthless because they have to be in order to survive. If anything, they’re ruthless by nature and the race gives them opportunity and reward to be themseslves.
As the race progresses, it becomes increasingly clear to Jensen that the man responsible for his wife’s death is another driver named Pachenko (Max Ryan) acting on the orders of the warden. There is a great fight scene between Jensen and Pachenko on the eve of stage two in which Jensen confronts Pachenko about his involvement in the murder of his wife. Statham owns the screen during this sequence – oozing with a great, physical male energy that is uniquely Statham.
The final word: In the end, there is no real reason for Jensen to stay involved in the race. Even after the warden threatens to ensure his infant daughter Piper is adopted and never sees him again, I don’t believe for a moment Jensen needs to keep racing out of a sense of self-preservation. That’s ultimately where Death Race fails, but fear not – Statham, as always, rocks. Try not to get sucked into asking yourself any questions and you’ll be just fine.