Death Race is a 2008 American science fiction action thriller film produced, written, and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson and starring Jason Statham.
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 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 Cruse 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.
In 2012, the economy of the US completely collapses, causing unemployment and crime rates to skyrocket, and a sharp increase of convicted criminals, which leads to privatized prisons for profit. Hennessey (Joan Allen) is the warden of Terminal Island Penitentiary, as which she earns her profits from the pay-per-view broadcast of a modern gladiator game called "Death Race," with the prisoners as the players.
The racers, along with their navigators, drive a 3-part race over 3 days on a closed track at Terminal Island, with various pressure plates: swords activate the racers's offensive weapons, shields activate defensive weapons such as oil, smoke, and napalm, and skulls ("Death Heads") activate deadly metal traps which rise up from the track. The reward for the drivers is that if one racer wins 5 races they will be granted their freedom by Warden Hennessey.
At the end of one race, a masked driver named Frankenstein (real name Niles York (David Carradine)) is nearing the finish line against his only surviving competitor and rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). His navigator, Case (Natalie Martinez), reports that his defensive weapons are malfunctioning, so he drops the "tombstone" (a huge iron block at the back of the car as defense) but it fails to stop Joe, and he orders Case to eject from the car just before Joe blows it up, sending the car in the air.
On the outside world, industrial worker and former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) struggles to live normally and provide for his family in the ruined economy. When the steel factory he works at is closed, he returns home to his wife and their new-born daughter, Piper. An assailant wearing a ski mask knocks him unconscious. Ames wakes up, holding a bloodied knife, framed for his wife's murder. He is arrested by the police and sentenced to life imprisonment, while his daughter Piper has been placed in foster care.
Six months later, Ames is transferred to Terminal Island prison. After getting into a fight with Pachenko (Max Ryan) and his Aryan Brotherhood gang, Hennessey, along with her right-hand man Ulrich (Jason Clarke), informs Ames that â" unknown to the public and the other racers â" Niles/Frankenstein died at the operating table after the previous race, but as he was so wildly popular, she wants to keep his legend alive for the ratings. In order for this to happen, She coerces Ames to clandestinely assume the persona, enticing him with only needing one victory to earn his freedom since Frankenstein held four victories, as well as threatening to give Piper to another couple. She points out that, by wearing Frankenstein's mask, only a few inside people will know he is not really Frankenstein, including his maintenance crew of Coach (Ian McShane), a professional mechanic that is deliberately staying in prison, Gunner (Jacob Vargas), and Lists (Frederick Koehler), a mentally unstable person.
On Day 1, Ames meets Case, who also knows he is not Frankenstein. Ames handles himself well, even taking out another racer, but his defensive weapons mysteriously malfunction, just like in the previous Frankenstein's last race. When he sees Pachenko doing the same gesture as the assailant through the window, Ames is distracted and is hit by Joe, and comes in last place. In all, three racers have been killedâ"Siad runs into a Death's Head trap, which first impales his car, then crushes and detonates it as it retracts ino the ground. Hector Grimm (Robert LaSardo) is shunted into a wall and manages to crawl out of his car, where he is run over by Machine Gun Joe. Travis Colt (Justin Mader) attempts to kill Frankenstein, but is killed himself when Frankenstein uses the Monster's ejector seat to launch a napalm canister into Colt's car. During a conversation with Hennessey and another fight with Pachenko, Ames pieces together that Pachenko killed his wife and framed him, at the behest of Hennessey, so that she could recruit Ames as Frankenstein's replacement to maintain her pay-per-view profits.
On Day 2, Ames forces Case to admit that she has been sabotaging Frankenstein's car on the orders of Hennessey in exchange for her release papers. Case was never meant to kill either Niles or Ames, but instead to stop them both from winning so Frankenstein could remain in Death Race. Ames causes Pachenko to crash, before leaving his car and killing Pachenko. Hennessey then unleashes the Dreadnought, a massive 18-wheel tanker with many weapons that Hennessey has unexpectedly added to the race to boost ratings. It kills three more racers (Carson and Riggins using a combination of rockets, machine guns, and flamethrowers,) and 14K (Robin Shou)) by snaring his tires with chained caltraps, trapping him dragging behind the Dreadnought and making him easy prey for an RPG. Ames subsequently teams up with Joe to trigger a "Death Head" which destroys the Dreadnought, much to Hennessey's shock and horror. Since Ames had contacted Joe personally during the race, Joe has figured out Ames's identity, so Ames decides to have a talk with Joe.
Aware that Ames knows her secret, Hennessey tries to maintain the ruse of granting him freedom but asks him to consider staying on permanently as Frankenstein and will gain commodity in prison as an exchange. As a precaution, she orders Ulrich to plant a bomb under Ames' car for Day 3, knowing she can replace Ames with another masked Frankenstein driver.
On Day 3, Hennessey deliberately keeps Ames from activating his weapons but allows Joe to activate his. It makes no difference, as Ames (with Case) and Joe escape by driving their vehicles through a weakened wall discovered by examining footage of Grimm's demise; Hennessey attempts to activate the bomb, but Coach had earlier discovered and removed the detonator. Hennessey sends attack helicopters after Ames, Case, and Joe, who make it across the bridge that connects the island to the mainland and split up. During the pursuit, Machine Gun Joe's navigator is killed by gunfire, making him Joe's fourth navigator to be killed over the course of the film. When the helicopters follow Ames under Hennessey's orders, Case offers herself as a bait in the Frankenstein costume to save Ames and to also repay Niles, and because she had already been given her release papers. She is captured while Joe and Ames escape on a freight train.
Hennessey, although furious about the escape, is happy about capturing Frankenstein (unaware that it is Case) and also for her earning millions of dollars from the highly successful pay-per-view. She is given a congratulations present from an anonymous person, but really is the bomb she put on Ames' car. Hennessey and Ulrich are killed as Coach detonates the bomb, remarking: "I love this game."
Six months and 2000 miles later, Joe, Ames, and Piper are shown living honestly in Mexico, where they work as mechanics at a local used car dealership. Case shows up in a modified 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS which she won in a card game. As they all begin inspecting the car, Ames reflects on how no one could love his daughter more than he does, and that she is his chance at something else, something better, which to him is "all that really matters."
- Jason Statham as Jensen Ames, a falsely-convicted prisoner coerced to drive in the arena, taking the name "Frankenstein" from the man who came before him.
- Joan Allen as Hennessey, the sadistic prison warden who is the current 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 3 races and wishes to win so he could 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 worth enough.
- Natalie Martinez as Case, Frankenstein's navigator. In prison for killing her husband, an abusive cop, she has a few years to serve and was given release papers in exchange for sabotaging Frankenstein's car
- Max Ryan as Pachenko, a rival driver Ames clashes with several times (who also killed Ames' wife and framed him for it). He is the leader of the prison's Aryan Brotherhood.
- Jason Clarke as Mr. (Darryl) Ulrich, Hennessey's right-hand man and a sadistic prison guard. His first name is not mentioned in the film.
- 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.
- 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).
- Robin Shou as 14K, a tenth-generation Triad member, sent to business school, held a degree from MIT.
- 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). His mask comes from a huge fire he suffered. He is actually the second Frankenstein.
The cars in the film are vehicles that have been heavily modified with armor plating, machine guns and defensive weapons:
- Frankenstein's Monster - A 2006 Ford Mustang GT A80 armed with 2 M134s, smokescreen, napalm and oil slick for defense, as well as a 6-inch-thick (150Â mm) detachable steel plate on the rear called "The Tombstone". It also has an ejector seat for the navigator, a NOS system to provide additional speed and a cigarette lighter.
- 2001 Dodge Ram 2500 - Machine Gun Joe's vehicle armed with 4 hood-mounted Browning M1919, 2 side-mounted Vulcan cannons and Russian RPG-7s on the roof and is mounted with 25-inch wheels to increase the size of the car.
- 1998 Porsche Carrera 996 SC - Driven by the Chinese convict 14K. With 2 WW2 German MG-42 belt-fed general purpose machine guns and 4 hood-mounted missiles with 4 on the roof.
- Pachenko's Chop Top- 1966 Buick Riviera Gran Sport armed with 4 German hood-mounted MG-34s and 2 internal PPSh-41 submachine guns also with 2 automatic Uzis mounted in the grille.
- 1979 Pontiac Trans Am - Carson's Car. Has a M134 aiming backwards for defense and a .50 caliber turret on top of his car which is operated by his navigator.
- 1972 Buick Gran Riviera "Boat tail" - Riggins' car. Caltrops for defense and twin Browning M1919 machine guns in the passenger side windscreen controlled by the navigator.
- 1989 Jaguar XJR-S - driven by Travis with 2 .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns.
- 2005 Chrysler 300C - driven by Grimm armed with 3 hood-mounted FN MAG58s with no stocks and a missile on the passenger side roof and an oil slick for defense.
- 1989 BMW E32 735i - Siad's car. Armed with a double M134 on the roof.
- The Dreadnought - A BAB Unit Peterbilt 18-wheel tanker truck modified by Hennessy into an armored truck with .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns, 2 flame throwers, 2 rocket launchers, spikes on the forward wheel hubs, iron plates on the back wheels, bulldozer blade, chained caltrops and an M1A1 tank turret on the rear end of the trailer.
In March 2005, following the success of Alien vs. Predator, 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 â" 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 â" or driving, winning," explained the director. Filming on Death Race began in Montreal in August 2007.
The film has received mixed reviews. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 43% rating based on reviews from 150 critics. Metacritic gave it rating of 43 out of 100 based on reviews from 23 critics.
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 who 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.
A prequel to the film, Death Race 2: Frankenstein Lives, went through production in South Africa. The film, directed by Roel ReinÃ©, stars Luke Goss, Ving Rhames, Sean Bean, and Danny Trejo. It was released direct-to-DVD.
- Official website
- Death Race at the Internet Movie Database
- Death Race at AllMovie
- Death Race at Metacritic