I remember hunting down Death Race 2000 on VHS in high school with friend Pita-San. We were nerds who played “Car Wars” and this was on the required viewing list for players of that old game; we were not prepared for its dark satire, or the crazy camp. It amazed us. We did not think such movies were made. We loved it. So I was sort of excited about a remake, which could be a lot of fun- cars exploding, over the top villains, and a dark satirical future. I was sorely disappointed.
Let’s begin with the original. In a post-apocalyptic future, America is led by a brown-shirt President who blames all our problems on the French (some things never change). The populace is kept distracted by a violent cross-country road race in which drivers gain points by running down pedestrians in their suped-up, blade-festooned vehicles. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the favorite driver- so called because he’s been in so many wrecks that most of him has been replaced. He drives a Godzilla-inspired Corvette with razor spines from nose to tail. His biggest rival is Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone), a gangster Guido with sadly inoperable tommy-guns and a huge Bowie knife mounted on his car; others include the Nazis Mathilda the Hun and Herman the German in their V-2 rocket-propelled Buzzbomb (complete with Prussian spike nosecone), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, Rock ‘n Roll High School) a cowgirl with longhorns on her hood, and Nero the pretty-boy, who thankfully gets killed first.
It’s an utter campfest, as they plow through construction crews, guys playing chicken with them, and Rebels trying to sabotage the race. Frankenstein is saddled with a new navigator that he thinks is a government spy; he wants to win this last race so he can meet the President, and give him a handshake… with a “hand grenade!” Yeah, his metallic hand has a grenade built into it. There’s fake red blood galore, but it’s all well directed- the cars are sped up a little on camera, but they seem to be going pretty fast, and the stunts are decent. Whenever they aren’t racing and things get a little slow, director Paul Bartel wisely makes the girls (even his wife Mary W.!) show off their boobies. So all in all, it’s a slice of ’70s delight.
Carradine was fresh out of “Kung Fu” on TV and needed to break away from his Kwai Chang Cane character; Sly was probably raising money for Rocky, and they both chew into the roles with relish. The newscasters who follow the race are a mockery of TV talking heads, with a Howard Cosell talk-alike and others who drip with insincerity as government stooges. The budget is all spent on the goofy cars, but everyone involved goes at it with gusto. The Arnie movie The Running Man has more in common with this than the Stephen King story it’s based on, and while it’s pacing is slow for modern audiences, there’s nothing else quite like Death Race 2000. Name another movie where the doctors would roll out the elderly patients for “Euthanasia Day” only to be run over themselves. Paul Bartel knew how to make good trash, but this and Eating Raoul are his best. If you must see the “re-imagining” in theaters now, find a way to see the original.
Death Race is a another video game movie from that master of mediocrity, who should be banned from having a name similar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s and Wes Anderson’s. Like a dog wiping his ass across the white carpet of cinema, he’s left a brown streak across the movie rack that cannot be ignored. I’ve seen Alien vs. Predator (the most boring of all the Alien films), Resident Evil (the worst of the trilogy), Event Horizon (probably the most overrated nerd-beloved film of all time, Hellraiser in space) and now Death Race, which mixes NASCAR, machine guns, and pinball in a prison movie. I’m told Soldier is saved somewhat by Kurt Russell, so I’ll rent that the next time I’ve watched too many enjoyable movies and need a letdown.
There’s nothing surprising about Death Race. Ian McShane (“Deadwood,” Sitting Target) and his gravelly voice manage to uplift his scenes, but Jason Statham coasts by, having cast off any emoting ability sometime after Cellular. I loved him in Guy Ritchie’s movies, and as The Transporter, but he’s really become Vin Diesel’s grittier brother. Joan Allen (Manhunter, the Bourne Trilogy) must owe someone a favor; she’s horrible as the steely warden Hennessy, who runs the private prison with a cool and ruthless demeanor. The problem is she only has one note. Angie Dickinson in Payback: Straight Up was believable; Hennessy is not. Hearing her say nonsensical vulgarities like “Okay you, cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk!” is hilarious; you’d think McShane of the legendary Al Swearingen would have coached her on how to cuss!
Crowd favorite Frankenstein died in his last race, so Hennessy frames ex-NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (Statham) for murder to get him to replace the masked marauder. Carradine voices Frankenstein in the opener, which was a nice touch (there are a few forgettable nods to the first movie). The rest of the drivers are all tokens- Machine Gun Joe is now a twofer, a gay black musclehead played by Tyrese Gibson (Four Brothers); 14k is the Asian nod to the ricer Fast and the Furious crowd, there’s Pachenko the Russian, a nondescript Latino dude whose job is to yell vulgarities in Spanish, and an Aryan Brotherhood guy who’ll be the bad guy among bad guys. I was hoping there’d be an obnoxious Guido driver so I could point up at the screen and say, “hurr! he’s like me! I can now relate to this story!” They also bus in women prisoners so the gals have someone to cheer, but they are only allowed to serve as navigators- McCain must be president in 2012. The lithe ladies all have boomboxes in their cooches, which play riffs if they sway their hips in slow motion while they walk on screen. I must get Firecracker one of those. Natalie Martinez plays Frankenstein’s navigator Case, so maybe it’s just something hot Latinas are born with.
This movie is all about the action, but it’s mostly boring. Armored cars with machine-guns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers hammer at each other as they lap the track, which has Power Ups (they’re actually called this) scattered around it, like Mario Kart meets Twisted Metal. The guns barely seem to hurt the cars’ armor, and most kills are of the crash & explode variety. PWSA tries to up the gore factor now and then, but it’s bad CG the few times we see a pedestrian get plowed. We actually see a guy explode as soon as a car touches him, for example; I’d rather have fake red blood on an actual stunt man, thanks. During the final lap, Hennessy releases “the Dreadnought,” a tricked out semi with a tank gun, and its wheels have those spinning blades we’ve seen a dozen times- the token Asian’s navigator gets chewed up by it, which involves her jiggling in her seat with her tongue hanging out. The driver doesn’t even get blood on him. It would have been funnier if we just heard her scream and see him get splattered with her innards, but you can’t expect clever from this Anderson.
The ending seems like an afterthought and I think PWSA (pronounced Pwissa) wrote it on toilet paper in between grunts. It’s as if they ran out of time, needed a prison break, and then forgot that they didn’t kill the evil warden. When they do escape in their death cars, try not to roll your eyes when the guards chase them in regular old police cars, as if escape never crossed their minds; the cars are all rigged with kill switches on the weapons, but Hennessy never imagined they could be bypassed. They chase them with helicopters across the only bridge off the prison island, which is protected by … a chain link fence. Even prisons that don’t hold death races have better security than this. But we ran out of time, so they need to escape easily. So much for finales.
Jason Statham, what’s gotten into you? It’s an easy paycheck, I know. I really liked The Transporter. If you can’t tell what made that more fun than the latest string of movies you’ve made, fire your agent before you lose any remaining cred. We’ll always have Turkish.
And as a bonus here are two photos from Death Race 2000 that look like they’re from an S&M movie, or a Batman porno.