Tuesday, 28 February 2012

It's 2012, Where is Death Racing?

I recently revealed in this blog that the interest I have towards any sport is equal to the violence the sport in question includes. Sadly, there are precious few sports in this here world where people get decapitated or otherwise brutally executed. But luckily, we have movies for that. After all, it's also better for human rights and such that people aren't actually executed for our thirst of carnage.

The sport that would most benefit some additional bloodshed would be the various race driving sports. I haven't the faintest idea why anyone would find cars driving around in a circle interesting if there isn't even a crash or two involved. Luckily, the visionary director Paul W.S. Anderson has prophecised that this year, the US economy will totally collapse. As unemployment will rise, cheap thrills become increasingly popular among the bloodthirsty 99%. Thrills such as... DEATH RACING!

Death Race (2008)
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

In the near future, the live broadcasting of Death Race is the most popular TV event in the world. The racers are all notorious convicts, fighting for three victories in a three partial race competition, which will grant their freedom. And their cars are modified with plates and spikes and such, with additional weapons added by video game-like powerups. The TV event is supervised by the hard-nosed Hennessy (Joan Allen) who will have no holds barred to keep the masses entertained.

The latest convict she attempts to exploit is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former racecar driver, now factory worker framed for the murder of his wife. Hennessy wants to masquerade Ames as the popular racer Frankenstein, beloved by the crowds. The original Frankenstein has recently died on the track, but this fact has been hidden from the public. Ames agrees to play along because he needs his freedom for any chance to meet his daughter ever again. But he also begins to suspect the real murderer of his wife is lurking inside the prison's car pool. Helping him is the spunky Case (Natalie Martinez), former driving partner of Frankenstein, and Frank's old pit stop crew, led by Coach (Ian McShane). But Ames doesn't just inherit Frank's old friends, but also his old enemies and racing rivals such as Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), Pachenko (Max Ryan) and 14K (Robin Shou, Mortal Kombat's Liu Kang).

So what's surprising is that this is quite a good film for a Paul W.S. Anderson joint. It's certainly by far the most fun of his films I've seen, altough one can't claim that it is by any means smart or even that original. It takes good use of it's R rating, and allows the racers to become sliced, diced, shot full of holes and blown to bits. There's some good swearing in it, too. It's one of those hilarious modern action movies which are completely ridiculous, but play out as the most serious affair ever. There's no tongue-in-cheek winking here and there. And who better to play the lead as the man's man Jason Statham. Also the rest of the cast is filled with suitably hard-assed tough guy actors. Still, we could've done without Fred Koehler's racing and car tuning nerd Lists.

As the film is based on a Roger Corman classic, and the grand old man of trashy entertainment has still stayed on as an Executive Producer, one can be guaranteed that the film has a healthy exploitative nature. For instance, the rules of Death Race order that each car's co-driver must be a woman from the female penitentiary. That's why we are treated to a scene where impossibly fit female convicts emerge in slow motion from their bus, dressed in micro shorts and tight tops as the male convicts cheer and jeer. And so you should too, because this is fun and dumb testosterone-filled trash for a Friday night.

★★★ 1/2

Death Race 2 (2010)
Director: Roel Reiné

Altough this film could easily be mistaken for a sequel, it is in fact a prequel to the first Death Race. Which, according to Paul W.S. Anderson, is itself a prequel to Roger Corman's original Death Race 2000. Seems confusing, but since essentially they are all the same film, one shouldn't give too much thought to this fact. It's against the franchise's principles. So the film concerns the origin of the original Frankenstein (now played by Luke Goss) and how Death Racing was first concieved.

Goss's character is actually named Carl "Luke" Lucas, and he's a mob getaway driver for crime boss Marcus Kane (Sean Bean). A major heist goes wrong and everyone but Lucas get killed. The furious Kane wants to get rid of the final witness liking him to the crime and sets a reward for Lucas's head. The driver himself is sent to a maximum security prison. The prison is corporation-funded, and keeps it's costs down by having caged matchs where the prisioners fight to the death in front of millions of pay-per-view customers at their homes. Lucas becomes an unwilling galdiator to protect his prison-friend Lists (played again by Fred Kohler). But even a flamethrower match to the death prompting a major prison riot can't keep the ratings high enough. The executive producer of Death Match, September Jones (Lauren Cohan), soon figures another kind of deadly sport to keep the viewers interested. DEATH RACING.

Supposedly set in a post-apocalyptic world, Death Race 2 features a lot more footage of life outside prison walls. And it looks about the same as the world today does, which makes it odd that regular citizens are so extremely bloodthirsty to pay to see people beat each other to death in brutal dystopian gladiator matches (or is it?). Also oddly, much of the actors look the same as the actors in the first film, and play more or less the same roles, yet the characters are named differently. I suppose the film was written for the same actors, all of which, except for Kohler and Robin Shou, refused to do the film. That's probably also why the movie went straight to DVD. It still has a considerable budget, as the film features such famous actors as Danny Trejo (as Coach Goldberg), Ving Rhames (as the corporate magnate Weyland) and Sean Bean. The racing scenes in particular could just have been copied and pasted from the first film and no one would've noticed the difference.

All the characters are still introduced inside the scene with thse informational screens.

The film's pacing is also very odd. The climax doesn't happen in a race but when a single character is murdered by backing a car over her. Much of stuff between the two films still remains unexplained. Yet the result is as violent and sexy content is even more explicit than in the first film. Director Reiné also has some sort of fixation of people getting burned alive. An interesting fact is that since the film features the Weyland Corporation, it is set in the same universe as the Alien quadrilogy and the upcoming Prometheus.


Death Race 2000 (1975)
Director: Paul Bartel

Okay, so the idea of Death Races stems from this Roger Corman-produced cult film. Death Race 2000 is quite a different game when compared to the modern death races. In this original one, the drivers head their way from American coast to coast, not around a single track. The players score points by running over people, and the racers are just celebrities, not convicts. Instead of freedom, they compete for a chance to meet the President of the United States. Death Race is not being run by money-making corporations but the dystopian United States fascist police state that seeks to keep the masses happy. And nothing else matters to them as long as they get to watch the hit television programme Death Race.

Frankenstein (David Carradine) is a beloved champion of this brutal sport. He's thus named because multiple of his body parts have been rebuild as a result of a string of chrashes through the years. Frankenstein seems unbeatable, which annoys his chief rival Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone) . There's also a conspiracy of freedom fighters and a lingering war against France, which will be obstacles on Frankenstein's road to meet the president. And he has some very personal reasons to meet the man, too.

This 70's exploitation flick represents Corman's regular way of producing films. Take a popular genre (in this, car chase pictures), put in a few B-grade celebrities (in this, David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone), and lastly, put in some boobs every 15 script pages and as-cheap-as-possible special effects. The film's wicked and goofy sense of humour and cheery cheesiness reminds Troma films of the late 80's, early 90's. It's clear that Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz took a page from Corman's style of filmmaking. Death Race 2000 looks quite cheap and silly. For instance, the cars the drivers are driving look like amusement park bumper cars or ghost train wagons with all their plastic spikes and airbrushed colors.
See what I mean?

The film has some very slight satirical points, which stem from the period's sci-fi movies in general. For instance, the connection between a fascist state and keeping the audiences happy is more deeply observed in the same year's Rollerball. What interests director Paul Barter and Corman more is having some humour scenes where people are ran over with cars. Or women take their tops off. The film's general mood is well summed by the fact that several of the drivers are Nazis, with swastikas in their helmets, giving seig heils to each other, and generally eresorting to assholism. Many characters are quite annoying, cheif among them the cheerful TV host Junior Bruce ("The Real" Don Steele). The budget stops many of the more outrageous ideas right in their tracks. The film really misses its chance for an exploding ending. Death Race 2 may have been anticlimatic, but at least it delivered laughs with its brutality. But nevertheless, it is still somewhat fun entertainment by its stupidity values alone.


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