In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be discussing Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2008 remake, Death Race!
Loosely based on Ib Melchior’s short story The Racer, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 is remembered as a revolutionary B-movie that entertained audiences with fun and schlocky satire despite a shoestring budget and malfunctioning cars. Starring David Carradine and featuring an early appearance by the legendary Sylvester Stallone, the 1975 film follows the masked “Frankenstein” as he embarks on a Transcontinental Road Race meant to entertain a dystopian society through vehicular violence. Boasting colorful characters and biting social commentary, the film became one of the most influential genre flicks of its time, inspiring comic-books, videogames and even other movies for many years to come.
That’s why it’s surprising that it took so long for studios to revisit the franchise, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. After decades of false starts and aborted reboots, with variations of the project even featuring Tom Cruise as both producer and leading man, Paul W.S. Anderson finally managed to greenlight his proposed reworking of the franchise with the help of the original producer Roger Corman.
Though Anderson spent nearly 13 years pitching his vision of a Death Race remake, his original project had to be revised once the studio determined that a futuristic sequel (originally titled Death Race 3000) wasn’t exactly “budget-friendly”. Forgoing hi-tech hover-cars and ludicrous sci-fi gadgets, the filmmakers ultimately settled on a gritty prequel/remake chronicling the plight of Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a framed prisoner attempting to win back his freedom by taking on the role of the iconic Frankenstein and participating in the pay-per-view event “Death Race”, a brutal competition that takes place on a futuristic prison island.
Boasting a passionate director and an admittedly thrilling premise, it stands to reason that moviegoers were hyped for this updated take on hyper-violent battle-racing. After all, the cars actually worked this time around, and it seemed like audiences were clamoring for a more convincing depiction of vehicular carnage.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
Hauling in over $76 million at the box office on an estimated $65 million budget, Death Race didn’t exactly wow producers with its financial performance. The critical reception wasn’t very positive either, with the picture currently sitting on a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as reviewers blasted its boring characters and messy editing as well as the uncharacteristically somber script.
Many complaints were directed at the film’s general lack of creativity and style, with exaggerated racers like the original’s Nero the Hero and Matilda the Hun becoming run-of-the-mill bad guys with boring cars that are hard to tell apart during shaky-cam action sequences. The film’s lackluster attempts at social critique also came under fire, as many of Bartel’s jabs at American culture were excised in favor of a more direct commentary on privatized prisons and Reality TV.
The Terminal Island Penitentiary setting was also a problem, as the single location meant that the film lost the compelling road trip aspect of the original, making the titular race resemble a more savage version of Mario Kart rather than a cross-country odyssey. Additionally, the drab environments resulted in repetitive action scenes, with cars exploding and drivers being gunned down without the added personality to make these moments memorable.
Of course, the biggest problem here is the picture’s overwhelmingly serious tone, with the story lacking the original movie’s dark sense of humor. While it maintained some of the exaggerated dialogue and excessively brutal kills, this prequel/remake ends up being a mostly joyless experience that trades in the grindhouse charms of the original for big budget spectacle.
THE SILVER LINING
The original Death Race 2000 remains a schlocky classic that is just as entertaining today as it was nearly a half-century ago. While Bartel’s film is undoubtedly the superior picture, I’d argue that Anderson’s 2008 reimagining also has a lot going for it if you accept that it’s a fundamentally different but equally valid experience.
The larger budget and increased production value may have removed some of the story’s trashy charms, but it also means that the vehicular action is much more believable this time around. The film even benefited from 35 fully functioning cars and a team of over 80 mechanics to make sure that they were all in working order. Sure, it would have been nice to see wackier designs and crazier racers, but it’s hard to look away from these grisly crashes and explosions, especially during the second half of the picture.
The cast is also unexpectedly great, with heavy hitters like Ian McShane and Joan Allen elevating an admittedly bland script. While Statham makes for a charming leading man, Tyrese Gibson stands out as the rival-turned-ally Machine Gun Joe, though it’s a shame that they didn’t give him any of Stallone’s hyperbolic mannerisms. Additionally, David Carradine actually returns to voice Frankenstein in the movie’s opening scene, which is a treat for fans of the original.
Beyond the budget and performances, I think one of the Death Race remake’s most unique aspects is its cinematic repurposing of videogame logic, with the picture successfully adapting absurd gaming tropes like power-ups and optional risky short-cuts. These entertaining ideas don’t exactly make up for the uninspired visuals, but they make the movie feel like a less goofy take on Twisted Metal, which is always a good thing.
It’s nowhere near as memorable as the original, but I really appreciate how Death Race isn’t a simple rehash of its predecessor, keeping only the general premise and mostly doing its own thing. If you can accept that, I’d highly recommend revisiting this gearhead spin on dystopian prison movies. While the Death Race franchise would live on through a series of surprisingly fun direct-to-video follow-ups (and a full-on legacy sequel in the form of Death Race 2050), I know I’ll always have a soft spot for Jason Statham and Tyrese Gibson teaming up for an armored truck boss battle on the big screen.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.