Throw Back Thursday Review: Death Race (2008)

Poster for Death RaceIt has taken a bit of time for the concept of Throw Back Thursdays to sink in, aka #tbt but now that it has, thanks to Rich Paschall who gave us another way of looking at this sometimes annoying new trend, the beginning of The Throw Back Thursday Review has started with Death Race (2008).

This lovingly made reimagining of Roger Corman’s classic, and cult favorite, Death Race 2000 (1975), keeps up with the entertainment factor of the original. David Carradine, who starred as Frankenstein in the first film (along with a heavy-set Sylvester Stallone who played Machine Gun Joe as the winning driver’s main adversary) provides the voice of the first “Frank” in this remake as a huge nod and wink to Corman’s camp classic. Roger adores Paul W.S. Anderson (known for Event Horizon and all but one of the Resident Evil films) whom he discovered when the director made his first film Shopping in 1994 with Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee, Sean Bean, Marianne Faithful and Jason Isaacs.

While Corman’s film dealt with a race taking place out on the road, where members of the public were considered targets by the drivers, the remake (which Anderson says is a prequel to the 1975 film) is a reality TV show brought to the public from inside a high security prison. Overall, the mythos is the same. Frankenstein is the “long-term” winner and crowd pleaser that dies at the beginning of the film. In the original, “Frank” was continually resurrected by faceless drivers as the real one and the subsequent replacements kept getting killed.

In the 2008 version, only one previous Frankenstein exists before Statham’s Jensen Ames puts on the mask. Machine Gun Joe, Statham’s biggest adversary is played by Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane (Deadwood, Lovejoy) plays Coach; the man in charge of Frank’s pit crew. Joan Hall, the three time Oscar nominated actress from TV’s The Killing, plays Hennessey, the prison governor and the romantic interest in the film is filled by Natalie Martinez (Under the Dome, Secrets and Lies).

Poster for Death Race 2000
Roger Corman’s camp classic…

In this world, Frank must win one more race in order to be given his freedom. In reality the driver would not have gotten pardoned even if he had survived and won his final race. Statham steps in and faces the same opposition from Governor Hennessey who wants high ratings and big payouts for the televised race. Anderson provides action at a good pace and sets up the story well. Statham is brilliant as Jensen Ames/Frankenstein and his supporting cast are all top notch performers who deliver.

The director has admittedly based his “dreadnaught” on the 1981 film Mad Max: The Road Warrior and its petrol truck. Paul is obviously a fan, he even says so in the DVD’s special features, and he also has real respect for Ridley Scott and James Cameron. So much so the cafeteria scene in Death Race borrows a bit from Cameron’s 1986 filmAliens.

In the Cameron film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) slaps a tray of cornbread out of the synthetic human’s (Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen) hand. Pvt. Frost glances up and says, “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.” In Anderson’s feature, Ian McShane (Coach) and his pit crew watch Statham’s character get into a fight with Pachenko and members of his gang. As the fight concludes, Coach says, “I guess he didn’t like the oatmeal either.” In both films scenes immediately preceding the acts of violence have another character complaining about the food; Aliens – cornbread, Death Race – oatmeal.

Aliens scene from film
Frost: “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.”

A very cleverly set up homage to another director and his film. Anderson consistently provides entertaining and action packed films, he can also terrify his audience, Event Horizon for example will give the viewer nightmares. In this 2008 film, he pays respect to Roger Corman’s original dystopian vision and brings his own mark to the world of violence presented in the “future.” I adore the film and its perfect mix of stars.

Speaking of which, Death Race earns a full 5 stars for a number of reasons, but mainly, because I am huge fan of Anderson, Statham, Gibson and McShane. The latter I actually met while working as an extra on Lovejoy in England, what a class act and real star only just surpassed by the chap who played Tinker on the series, Mr. Dudley Sutton, who treated everyone like an old mate.

7 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith