Death Race (film)
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Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Paul W. S. Anderson|
|Screenplay by||Paul W. S. Anderson|
|Music by||Paul Haslinger|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$75.7 million|
Though referred to as a remake of the 1975 film Death Race 2000 (based on Ib Melchior's short story "The Racer") in reviews and marketing materials, director Paul W. S. Anderson stated in the DVD commentary that he thought of the film as something of a prequel.
A remake had been in development since 2002, though production was delayed by disapproval of early screenplays, then placed in turnaround following a dispute between Paramount Pictures and the producer duo Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner (the latter was the producer without Cruise in the film). Death Race was acquired by Universal Studios, and Anderson re-joined the project to write and direct. Filming began in Montreal in August 2007, and the completed project was released on August 22, 2008. Critics' reviews were mixed to negative.
In 2012, the collapse of the US economy and the subsequent increase in crime rates leads to the rise of privatized prisons. One such prison is Terminal Island Penitentiary, whose warden, Claire Hennessey, earns her profits by broadcasting a modern gladiator game participated in by the prisoners. In the game "Death Race", the racers, along with their navigators, compete in a three-part race over three days on a closed track. The track is littered with pressure plates that activate either the cars' offensive weapons, defensive equipment or deadly traps. Any racer winning five races will be granted freedom.
Towards the end of one race, a masked driver nicknamed Frankenstein is nearing the finish line, pursued by his rival Machine Gun Joe. His navigator, Case, reports that all his defensive equipment have malfunctioned. Against her protest, Frankenstein refuses to let Joe finish first. Case ejects herself out of the car just before Joe destroys it (as it crosses the finish line).
Industrial worker, ex-con and former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames struggles to support his family. When the steel mill he works at is closed, he and his fellow angry workers are attacked by the arriving riot police, forcing them to fight back. He returns home to his wife and their new-born daughter, Piper. A masked assailant knocks him unconscious. Jensen wakes up with a bloodied knife in hand, his wife dead nearby, and policemen storming into his home and arresting him. He is sentenced to life imprisonment, while Piper is placed in foster care.
Six months later, Jensen is transferred to Terminal Island Prison. He immediately gets into a fight with Pachenko and his Aryan Brotherhood gang. Hennessey's right-hand man Ulrich calls Jensen to her office. She tells him that Frankenstein died from his injuries after the previous race, and offers to let Jensen go free if he impersonates Frankenstein to win one more race (as Frankenstein had already won four). Jensen accepts the offer and meets Frankenstein's maintenance crew consisting of Coach, Gunner, and Lists, who explains the main reason she needs Jensen is that the profits and audience of "Death Race" has halved since Frankenstein's "disappearance". They also inform him of his cars capabilities, his opponents, their co-pilots (and his), and that Hennessey has had an entire cell block of the prison kept away from everyone else as they have been building something big on her orders.
On Day 1, Jensen meets his navigator Case. Jensen's cars defensive equipment again mysteriously malfunctions. Under attack by Travis Colt, one of the other competitors, Jensen improvises and spills napalm over Colt's car, and has Case ignite it with the cigarette lighter. Colt's car is then run into by Machine Gun Joe's. Jensen is distracted and hit by Joe when Pachenko does the same hand gesture at him as the masked assailant (making Jensen realize it was Pachenko that killed his wife), coming in last place. Day 1 ends with three racers dead (Siad, Grimm, and Colt) and six remaining. After a conversation with Hennessey and another fight with Pachenko, Jensen deduces that Hennessey ordered Pachenko to frame Jensen, so she can have a replacement for Frankenstein.
On Day 2, the team go to the workshop to find the concealed section open with a gaping hole as they wonder what was in here. As the race begins, Jensen confronts Case about the malfunctions. Case admits she sabotaged Frankenstein's car to keep him from winning and leaving Death Race, in exchange for her release papers, but that he was only supposed to lose and that he won the last race at the cost of his life. Jensen tricks Pachenko into crashing, then leaves his car and kills Pachenko by snapping his neck. Hennessey then unleashes the Dreadnought, a newly-built heavily armed 18-wheel tanker, to thin out the racers and boost ratings. The Dreadnought kills three more racers (Carson, Riggins, and 14K), leaving only Frankenstein and Joe alive. Jensen contacts Joe and the two work together to trigger a trap which destroys the Dreadnought, much to Hennessey's shock and anger.
Aware that he knows her angle, Hennessey asks Jensen to consider staying and racing as Frankenstein, in exchange for a life of comfort compared to attempting to put his old life back together, but he refuses. She orders Ulrich to plant a bomb under his car in case he wins, knowing that she can always find another person to impersonate Frankenstein. Knowing Hennessey has no intention of letting him go (and figuring out that no one will ever win five races, as sooner or later they all get killed), Jensen plans an escape and talks to Joe.
On the final race, Hennessey deliberately keeps Jensen from activating his weapons and allows Joe to activate his. Jensen, Case and Joe destroy and drive through a weakened wall, discovered by examining footage of the first race, and head for the bridge to the mainland. Hennessey activates the bomb, not knowing that it was removed and neutralized by Coach. As a furious Hennessey dispatches attack helicopters, the cars wreck the pursuing police cruisers, making it to the mainland and split up, and the helicopters follow Jensen's car under Hennessey's orders. Case reveals that she had already received her release papers. She wears Frankenstein's costume, and Jensen jumps out of the car before the helicopters corner her. Case is captured while Joe and Jensen escape on a freight train.
Hennessey, although furious about the losses, is happy about re-capturing "Frankenstein" and the race's success via ratings. She opens a congratulatory present, only to find the bomb she had planted on Jensen's car. Coach, the sender, detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey and Ulrich along with the media room. He then turns to the camera and, breaking the fourth wall, states "Damn, I love this game".
With Hennessey and Ulrich's deaths, the future of Death Race becomes uncertain. Six months later, Joe and Jensen are shown working in Mexico as mechanics as they escaped across the border, and are soon reunited with Case who brought Piper with her. Jensen embraces his infant daughter as Joe lights a cigar via blowtorch, Jensen then wonders about the uncertain future but hopes that he'll be a good father for his daughter.
- Jason Statham as Jensen Garner Ames, a falsely-accused convicted prisoner coerced to drive in the arena, taking the name "Frankenstein" from the man who came before him. He kills 2 racers (Travis Colt and Slovo Pachenko) at the race.
- Joan Allen as Claire Hennessey, the sadistic prison warden who is the controller of the Death Race.
- Tyrese Gibson as Joseph Mason (a.k.a. Machine Gun Joe), a sociopathic racer who looks to use Death Race as a means to escape from prison. He alone uses male navigators, due to his habit of killing his navigators or them dying during the race. He has won three races, killed 16 racers (including Hector Grimm) and wishes to win so he can leave for Miami.
- Ian McShane as Coach, Frankenstein's loyal head mechanic and a voluntary inmate, since he feels that the outside world is not worthy enough.
- Natalie Martinez as Case, Frankenstein's navigator. In prison for killing her husband, an abusive cop, she has a few years left to serve and was given release papers in exchange for sabotaging the car of Frankenstein (Niles York). In the ending scene of the film, she is now seen as Jensen's love interest.
- Max Ryan as Slovo Pachenko, a Russian rival driver with whom Ames clashes several times (who also killed Ames' wife and framed him for it). He is the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the prison. He has won two races and killed nine racers.
- Jason Clarke as Mr. T. Ulrich, Hennessey's second-in-command and a sadistic prison guard.
- Frederick Koehler as Lists, another member of Frankenstein's pit crew and a compulsive data collector. He is in prison for murdering his mother.
- Jacob Vargas as Gunner, Frankenstein's car repairman.
- Justin Mader as Travis Colt, a disgraced ex-NASCAR driver seeking to rebuild his career by winning the race. He has won two races and killed five racers.
- Robert LaSardo as Hector Grimm (a.k.a. the Grim Reaper), a certified psychopath driving in the race who loves and worships Hennessey (believing her to be the avatar of the Hindu god of death). He has won three races and killed 15 people (including Siad) in the race.
- Robin Shou as 14K, a tenth-generation triad member, sent to business school, who holds a degree from MIT. He has won two races and killed seven racers; he killed 14 fighters in the Death Match.
- David Carradine as Niles York/Frankenstein, the most popular driver in the history of Death Race. (Cameo voice-over, reprising role in original 1975 film Death Race 2000.) He wears the mask due to injuries he suffered in a huge fire. He is actually the second Frankenstein.
In March 2005, following the success of Alien vs. Predator (2004), director Paul W. S. Anderson revealed that he was directing a remake of Death Race 2000 (1975) entitled Death Race 3000 at Paramount Pictures based on a script by J. F. Lawton. The remake would be produced by the producer pair Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. Anderson described the remake as a riff on the first film. "It's not a straight remake at all. The first movie was an across-America race. This will be an around-the-world race. And it's set further in the future, so the cars are even more futuristic. So you've got cars with rockets, machine guns, force fields; cars that can split apart and re-form, a bit like Transformers. Cars that become invisible," the director explained. Comingsoon.net reported that "Paul saw his film almost as a prequel if anything; almost the genesis of the Death Race", though the film is referred to primarily as a remake in reviews and marketing materials.
Two years later, Roger Corman, the producer of Death Race 2000, elaborated that he had an option agreement with producer Tom Cruise, and that Cruise would portray the lead role. The director said that Cruise had not been happy with the first two screenplays and that a third one was underway. In June 2006, producer Jeremy Bolt reported that Anderson would direct the remake of Death Race 2000 after completing Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). The producer described the remake's new tone: "We've basically taken the idea of reality television and extended it twenty years. So it's definitely a comment on society, and particularly reality television, but it is not as much a parody or a satire as the original. It's more straight." The following August, Paramount ended its relationship with Cruise/Wagner Productions, and Death Race was placed in turnaround. According to reports, when the project was discovered available, Universal Studios acquired it. Cruise and Wagner resumed their roles as producers, and Anderson returned to write and direct the film.
In April 2007, actor Jason Statham entered negotiations to star in Death Race, with production slated to begin in late summer or early fall. Anderson described that Death Race would take place in a prison, and that the film would be "super-violent" like its predecessor. "It has little echoes of the original – a lot of people get run down, but rather than having the points system, which had no pay off anyway, it's a pure race. It's more like Gladiator, with the last person standing – or driving, winning," explained the director. Filming on Death Race began in Montreal in August 2007.
The film drew very poor reviews from critics. As of 2018, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 42% rating based on reviews from 153 critics, and an average rating of 4.8/10. The website's critical consensus states, "Mindless, violent, and lightning-paced, Death Race is little more than an empty action romp." Metacritic reports a rating of 43 out of 100 based on reviews from 23 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews." Audiences polled by CinemaScore during opening weekend gave the film an average grade of "B+" on a scale ranging from A+ to F.
Robert Koehler of Variety called Death Race "as hard as metal and just as dumb" and criticized it for removing the humor of Death Race 2000. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film half a star (out of four), calling it "an assault on all the senses, including common." Keith Phipps of the A.V. Club said the film is "ideal for those who want to watch a bunch of cars blow each other up, without having to think about it all that much." Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle called Death Race "one of the most boring drags of all time."
Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film "an ill-advised and severely wussified remake." Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News gave the film one and a half stars (out of four), calling it "junk" and saying that "the chases are pretty cool, but there's absolutely nothing else to see." A positive review came from Nathan Lee of The New York Times, who said that "the movie is legitimately greasy, authentically nasty, with a good old-fashioned sense of laying waste to everything in sight." James Berardinelli of ReelViews awarded Death Race a score of two and a half stars (out of four), saying that it's "weak when it comes to things like plot, character, and acting, but it's very good at provoking visceral reactions."
The film grossed $75,677,515, of which $36,316,032 was from North America.
The film was originally scheduled for release on September 26, 2008, but was moved to August 22, 2008.
The DVD and Blu-ray were released in the United States on December 21, 2008. There was also an unrated edition released. The Blu-ray version of the movie features a Digital Copy of the film. In the DVD commentary, Anderson further elaborates on his thought of the movie as a prequel more than a remake.
The score to Death Race was composed by Paul Haslinger and conducted by Tim Davies. Haslinger recorded the string portion of his score with the Hollywood Studio Symphony at the Sony Scoring Stage.
The soundtrack was released on August 19, 2008.
Prequels and sequel
The film is followed by two direct-to-video prequel films Death Race 2 (2010) and Death Race 3: Inferno (2013); both take place before this film and were filmed in South Africa. The films were directed by Roel Reiné, and star Luke Goss, Tanit Phoenix, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames all appeared in the prequels. Lists and 14K are the only returning characters and are portrayed by Frederick Koehler and Robin Shou, respectively. A fourth film is a direct-to-video sequel to the first film, titled Death Race: Beyond Anarchy (2018).
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- Borys Kit (August 21, 2007). "The 'Race' is on for Martinez". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved September 13, 2007.
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Type the film's title into the 'Find Cinemascore' search box.
- Robert Koehler (August 21, 2008). "Death Race review". Variety.
- Death Race review, Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
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- Death Race review, Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle
- Death Race review, Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
- Death Race review, Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News
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- "Death Race Rescheduled for this Summer". ComingSoon.net. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
- "Death Race (2008)". videoeta.com. 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
- Dan Goldwasser (August 1, 2008). "Paul Haslinger scores Death Race". ScoringSessions.com. Retrieved August 1, 2008.
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