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

How I Spent My Summer Vacation/Get the Gringo (2012) VoD

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Written by Mel Gibson, Stacy Perskie,  and Adrain Grunberg – who also directed the film – How I Spent My Summer Vacation or Get the Gringo was a “straight-to-Video-on-Demand” project that Gibson claimed was done because, “We’re just in a different era. Many people just like to see things in their homes….I think it’s the future.” [Los Angeles Times] It was screened in the UK and a few other countries but in the US (where his biggest critics reside) it was VoD. 

I am not sure if Mel is right or if he was just hedging his bets after a massive fall in popularity following his divorce, separation, racist behaviour and other negative publicity. Gibson’s last few years have been more scandal ridden than film ridden and it seems that he is attempting to claw his way back into favour with his (few remaining) fans.

Set in the world of the infamous (and now closed) El Pueblito Prison in Tijuana Mexico, Gibson plays a nameless professional thief who escapes from the Texas law by crashing through the border fence between Texas and Mexico with millions in stolen cash and his mortally wounded partner.

Once they land on the Mexican side of the border, the Federales are all ready to turn Gibson, and his now dead partner, over to the Texas border police when they spy the bags of stolen money. In that moment, the Federales change their minds and take Gibson and his partner into custody.

Gibson winds up in El Pueblito prison which is more like a criminal village behind bars. Where practically anything can be bought and prisoners walk around with guns and run the prison. Once in, Gibson’s character must survive and escape or he’ll be buried in the prison and never see freedom again.

Gibson is the only “real” name in the film, apart from Peter Stormare who has a cameo as the “big boss” he stole the money from. The rest of the cast all look familiar but aren’t anyone I’ve ever heard of. The boy who plays doomed liver donor (Kevin Hernandez) does a brilliant job as the cigarette mooching aide-de-camp of Gibson’s nameless con.

Kevin Hernandez as "the kid."
Kevin Hernandez as “the kid.”

When I saw the film, it was on Netflix and I vaguely remembered seeing a trailer or two for it on other DVD’s. Until watching it, I’d never heard of El Pueblito although I knew that prisons were run differently “south of the border.”

Author Joseph Waumbaugh, in his excellent non-fiction book Lines and Shadows, tells of how two policemen interrogate prisoners in Mexico. The prisoner is tied to a chair and has his head forced back. While one Federale holds the head, the other will open a bottle of Coke. After shaking said bottle the top is then held under the prisoners nose.  A fountain of soda spritzes up the nose and into the sinuses. An extremely painful experience that results in a 100% confession rate.

When a Mexican prison rioted in the 70’s television cameras showed crates of Coca-Cola being shipped into the prison. The riot was quelled without having a single shot fired or baton raised.

Having this in the back of my head while watching the film, made me believe that conditions like those shown could, in fact, be true and they were. Just enter el pueblito in the Google search engine; it was shut down in 2002 and was very close to how the prison was depicted in the movie.

Historical references aside, Gibson plays another character like “Parker” (based on the Donald Westlake books) who is a professional crook and also ex-military sniper. In other words, a character that he could play in his sleep. It never felt like a huge stretch for Mel and it featured bits of humour that were reminiscent of his Lethal Weapon films.

The film features a narration by Gibson and it does help move the film along and is not too obtrusive. I, as a rule, don’t care for too many “narration” films; it can get a bit annoying to be treated to a constant voice over, especially if the actor doing said narrative isn’t very good.

All in all the film was very entertaining and fun to watch. I’d have to give it a 4 out of 5 stars just because I felt that Gibson was reverting to playing a role that, as I said above, he could have sleep walked through.

Will this film move him up in his fan’s estimations or is he wasting his time on a career that’s been ruined by too much adverse publicity? Only time will tell and if he can manage to keep his less savoury antics under control he just might be able to repair the damage. What do you think?

Mel in his clown robbers outfit.
Mel in his clown robbers outfit.