Death Race 2008

Maybe I’m crazy, but shouldn’t a movie make even the littlest bit of sense?

It’s not like the original film ‘Death Race’ was a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It was a delightfully mean-spirited romp with a wonderful premise and some decent performances. What it had going for it was some honestly biting satire about American Car/Sports/Death culture mixed in with a 70s ‘paranoia about governmental fascism/overpopulation’ theme that managed to hold together over the course of the entire film.

It had that, and the fact that the plot, no matter how absurd it may have been, logically progressed forwards, the characters actions make sense, and everything followed a clear and (basically) understandable internal logic.

Would that I could say the same thing about ‘Death Race’ by Paul Anderson.

The story of a man who’s framed for his wife’s murder and sent to prison so that he can take over as the new ‘Frankenstein’, the most winning driver in the history of the sport, Death Race doesn’t make even a lick of sense, as I’ll attempt to demonstrate through the following observations.

An opening crawl announces that in an economically depressed future, crime is so bad that the government has entirely given up on running prisons and turned it all over to corporations. This has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, other than the fact that Joan Allen (the warden) working for a corporation would presumably mean that she has less oversight in running the prison than she would if it was a public facility, in that they’re less governed by ‘laws’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ and the like. That being said, there’s nothing about the film the requires the prison to be private as opposed to be public – the fact that a death sport is being run at the prison and sold to a massive audience as popular culture means that the America of Death Race’s future has undergone a relatively large moral and legal shift (although I’m sure some wags might say it wasn’t that big of a change), which means that from a plausibility standpoint there’s no reason the Death Race couldn’t be a governmental program, as opposed to a private one.

Actually, it might have been a little more plausible, since the grand prize for winning Death Race five times is freedom from prison. I’m left wondering exactly how the warden can promise a pardon, since the film doesn’t suggest that the corporate structure has any involvement at all in the criminal justice system. As far as the audience knows, people are still arrested and tried in a somewhat traditional fashion, and the corporations only take over when it comes to actually incarcerating the prisoners. Which raises the question, exactly how can Joan Allen offer her prisoners a release in exchange for winning a Death Race or, in another example, sabotaging someone to keep them from winning a Death Race?

The film seems to be operating under the principle that, since Joan Allen is in charge of keeping people in prison, she’s the one who gets to decide when they leave.

Of course, that’s utterly and completely wrong.

I suppose all the corporate prison stuff would be a little more tolerable if the film had anything whatsoever to say about the issue of corporations running prisons. Sadly, any evidence of deeper thought, or even a subtext of even the most vestigial nature, is utterly lacking. No, the villains are corporations because that’s the way it’s supposed to be in modern film, where simplistic anti-corporate propaganda as replaced simplistic anti-communist propaganda as the default justification for the hatred of the audience. Why bother explaining what a character has done that warrants the audience’s ire when you can just use a codeword that identifies them as evil?

Mentioning that a character works for a corporation in a modern action film is designed to elicit the same reaction as mentioning that they’ll swerve across two lanes of traffic to run over a dog if the opportunity arises.

I found this especially troubling because the film throws away an opportunity to actually include a message about the terrifying modern problem of corporations running prisons. Between 1995 and 2000, there was an 150 percent increase in the number of corporate prisons, and a 450 percent increase in the number of inmates being held in those prisons. There would be a jump of another 95 percent in private prison building between 2000 and 2005.

It might seem like a relatively innocuous idea, running a prison for profit, rather than letting the government handle it, except that in that case, the question has to be raised: exactly where is that profit going to be coming from? The government pays the prison a yearly fee, based loosely on what it would cost to house those prisoners themselves. Theoretically the corporation could make a profit by being more efficient in running the prison, but statistically speaking, corporate endeavors tend to be run less efficiently than governmental ones. So the profit can also come from hiring fewer guards, having more primitive facilities, and not offering any optional programs.

All public prisons offer social programs ranging from life-skills training to counseling for prisoners with HIV. Only about 3/4s of private prisons have the same. Even worse, just 60% of privately-run prisons offer academic and vocational training, compared to 90% of public-run prisons. This means that a prisoner who winds up in private facility has less chance of learning a trade or getting a degree, two of the greatest rehabilitative tools the penal system has available to it.

Of course, this seems counterintuitive – why would private prisons want their inmates to be released with less preparation for the outside than those who are released from public prisons? That makes it sound like they’d actually want their prisoners committing more crimes and coming back to jail. Which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, because if corporate prisons aren’t full, they can’t turn a profit – which isn’t just their first priority, over rehabilitation or containment, but their only priority.

Running a prison isn’t a cheap endeavor, though, and housing inmates just doesn’t produce much money, no matter how many corners the corporations cut. Which is where prison labour comes in.

Over 80% of prisons have what are called ‘inmate work programs’. Another relatively innocuous term, this one refers not to the standard jobs that prisoners do to help maintain the prison, simple janitorial work or employment in the laundry or kitchen, but rather for-profit employment, the proverbial ‘making license plates’ that people think of when they imagine the prison workshop.

Because labour laws, including the minimum wage, don’t apply to inmates, they can be forced to work for just a few cents an hour. Many prisons operate lumber mills, call centers, printing, simple assembly and construction – all businesses being run with essentially no labour costs. This practice has led many people to accuse the government of re-legalizing slavery with a more acceptable façade. After all, since they’re prisoners, the public doesn’t really care what’s happening to them*.

Isn’t it obvious how easily this situation could be extrapolated into the dystopian future of Death Race? Right at the beginning of the film, Jason Statham is laid off from his factory job when the company shuts down. While everyone is in line, getting their last, massively chopped, paycheck, riot police show up to quell any disturbance. Jason Statham takes the opportunity to observe that they’re dealing with a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the only thing having armored riot police show up is going to accomplish is to spark off a riot.

That’s exactly what happens, leading to an action scene where Jason Statham gets a club and beats a few of the police officers up with it. The scene then abruptly cuts to Jason arriving at home that night, a little roughed-up, but really no worse for wear. So apparently in the dystopian police state of the future you can take part in a riot and beat up a few cops and then walk away with no major consequences.

Isn’t that an insane dramatic opportunity to overlook? You want a villainous corporate/governmental interweave that the audience can root against? Have the same scene of the factory closing and the riot police showing up and starting a riot – but instead of just moving on, have the police arrest all the rioters. And then have the corrupt justice system sentence all of the unemployed workers to a year… of working in the plant they were just laid off from. Only now they’re working for five dollars a day instead of fifty.

See the improvement? You’ve established that the government and corporations are completely complicit and all modern systems are corrupt, giving the main character something to fight against, and at the same time you’re making a solid point about a modern social ill by extrapolating it to a fantastic degree. Or, to put it another way, actually write science fiction like you’re supposed to be doing.

Suddenly the film would have a message, and the plot would have been negligibly affected by the change, since Statham still could have been framed for murder while under a sentence of corporate servitude, and it would even be more believable that he would have wound up being recruited for Death Race, since obviously the villains would have been more likely to choose a driver who was already in prison to serve their purposes, rather than going to all the trouble of randomly picking out just some guy.

Another way the film dropped the ball is in the way it has absolutely nothing to say about the media. In a world where reality television is everywhere and people are willing to do disgusting and horrific things for the promise of an appearance on television, it seems like the time would be right for a film like Death Race to come along and savage this cult of celebrity excess. Once again, though, the film so utterly fails to do anything interesting with the idea that it winds up being trumped by the low-budget Roger Corman film that it’s remaking.

Death Race 2000 incisively lampooned the media of the day, portraying a none-too-exaggerated futuristic version of them as sycophantic parasites eager to ingratiate themselves to whatever celebrities they could manage to get in the same room as. There was even one female reporter who, in the style of 70s celebrity reporters, referred to everyone she interviews as her ‘close, personal, friend’. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to come up with the modern equivalent of this, given the fact that there are now seven or eight 24-hour celebrity news channels, ensuring that everyone knows what the Kardashians are doing every moment of every day*.

Now just imagine how easy it would be to add that level of satire into the film? Camera crews following the drivers around, elaborate bios played out for the audience at home, producers shadowing the drivers in prison, staying just off camera as they encourage them to develop feuds with the other drivers, feeding them clever things to say to each other and the folks at home. Asking Jason Statham to sucker punch the white supremacist again because the camera missed it… wouldn’t that have been both incredibly entertaining and utterly incisive?

Not only does the film avoid doing anything like this, but it actually never manages to give the audience the slightest idea what the experience of watching Death Race for the folks at home is. Or even establish the Death Race as a real event.

We’re told (but not shown) that Death Race is the most popular sporting event in America. It takes place in three stages over three days, starting with like a dozen drivers, whose numbers are whittled down over the course of the event as they kill one another with the machineguns and rockets that cover their cars. Yes, it certainly sounds a little exciting, but there’s a problem with the premise of the race: it’s only three laps.

And it costs one hundred dollars to watch each stage. That’s right, overall it’s a three hundred dollar pay per view event, and despite the economically depressed future dystopia the film inhabits, the filmmakers never suggest that the currency has devalued at all, let alone to the point where 300 dollars isn’t a lot of money to an average person.

You know how pissed-off the viewers of pay-per-view boxing matches get when it’s over within the first three rounds? They paid between fifty and a hundred dollars and they only wound up with ten minutes of actual boxing? Of course they’re furious! Of course, those events come with two hours of pre-show, two hours of wrap-up, and a few undercard bouts. So even if the main fight is a massive disappointment, there’s a lot of filler to ensure that you’ve gotten your money’s worth.

Death Race, on the other hand, has no early races to get people excited, no interviews with the drivers to get the people at home involved, and no commentators to explain the race as it’s going on to make sure the viewers never get confused. And in a best case scenario, it’s only going to last five minutes.

How on earth could that possibly be worth a hundred dollars? More to the point, in this incredibly depressed climate, are there a lot of people with three hundred dollars to spend on a combined fifteen minutes of entertainment?

So, now that we’ve seen how the film fails to create an interesting world or a plausible premise, let’s get into the details – by which I mean the specific ways in which the plot makes no sense at all.

To begin with, there’s the whole idea behind framing Jason and getting him to replace Frankenstein, who was killed in the last race. This race opens the film, and in the cute nod that all remakes must make to the previous version of the film, he’s voiced by David Carradine, who played the replacement Frankenstein in the original.

The idea underlying the plot is that Frankenstein must be replaced because he’s the most popular driver, and people won’t watch if he doesn’t race. In one of the most egregious examples I’ve ever seen of the film telling rather than showing, all the evidence we’re ever given of Frankenstein’s fame is that Joan Allen tells us that he’s famous. That’s it.

Compare this to the original film, where people essentially worshipped the mysteriously anonymous masked driver. They were so enamoured of him that as the race began doctors would wheel terminally ill patients out into the street so that Frankenstein could run them over in the hopes of giving him an early lead in points.

This time around no one seems to have any particular fondness for or reverence towards Frankenstein. Because we never get a glimpse into the larger world of Death Race, the audience has no idea what people think of Frankenstein, or why he’s so popular. Are there Frankenstein fan clubs? Do people dress up as him for Halloween? Is he marketed in action figure form? Does he have a lot of friends on Facebook?

We never learn anything about his backstory at all, which is incredibly puzzling given the film’s premise. Every contestant in the Death Race is introduced with a bio and rundown of their crimes and history. Every contestant other than Frankenstein, who is depicted only as a cipher. In the original film, this made a sort of sense, since as far as we can tell, the racers are entirely fabricated by the government, recruited and produced with themes and stories ready to go.

Not in this new Death Race, however. Here the racers are all murderers who had been thrown into the worst prison in America, and offered the chance to drive for their freedom. Their identities and crimes are public knowledge. They may like their racing pseudonyms, but everyone knows who they are and what they’ve done. All except for Frankenstein. Yes, his face has been ‘so damaged that he has to wear a mask’, but why doesn’t the screen show photos of what he used to look like?

One of the key plot points of the film is that Frankenstein absolutely can’t be allowed to die, because he’s far too popular with the folks at home. Again, this never resonates with the audience at all because we never get a sense of that popularity, because the film never really takes the time to consider what kind of a world the people outside of the prison live in.

How could this one have been fixed? Relatively easily. There’s a scene in the movie where Jason Statham’s “navigator” tells him something about the way the race works (likely involving the videogame powerups they have to drive over to use their weapons), Jason snaps back that he’s seen the game before. Really? Because that’s the only real suggestion in the entire film that he has. No, for the vast majority of the running time Jason gives off the an awkward audience-identification vibe, as if he’s one of those characters who, because the filmmakers have designated him the hero, shares the audience’s moral beliefs, rather than those of the people in the world. So rather than being an obvious fan of Death Race (which, in that world, is no more controversial an opinion to hold than being a fan of MMA or football in this one), he’s ironically detached from the whole situation, and not particularly interested in the competition or his opponents.

Why not make Jason Statham a fan of Death Race in general, and Frankenstein in particular? Since we’re spending all our time with him, having Jason be impressed with the idea of Frankenstein, and maybe even a little humbled by the prospect of taking over for him, would have gone a long way to establishing what kind of an impact this character had in the world outside of the prison walls, and added more believability to Joan Allen’s need to keep the character around after the literal Frankenstein’s death.

Now, the entire central plot of the film (Joan Allen frames Jason Statham’s for his wife’s murder so he can become the new Frankenstein) has enough serious problems that I almost can’t believe it was the subject of an actual movie I paid to see*. The key element of it is that while Frankenstein is popular, if he wins five races, he’ll go free. For some reason Joan Allen is terrified of this idea.

Again, the idea is that Frankenstein is so popular that viewership would fall if he wasn’t racing any more. This premise would have a little more traction if, once again, we had any evidence at all that Frankenstein had actual fans. Perhaps if they gave Statham a look at the amount of messages people were sending to Frankenstein or something… She’s so determined to not let Frankenstein win and leave that she has his car sabotaged on numerous occasions, and even goes so far as to plant a bomb on it.

My question about this is – why not let someone win and release them from prison? What would be the downside of that, exactly? It’s like in The Running Man – they make the game basically impossible to win, and then when, against all odds, someone actually manages to get out, they kill them anyway. Why? What possible reason could Joan Allen have for not letting anyone win? Sure, Frankenstein is popular right now, but how long is that going to last – and when he stops being popular, do you let him win then, giving the victory an unsatisfying feeling for the audience?

And if no one ever wins, then what’s the motive for people to keep racing? It’s like she never learned the lesson of who wants to be a millionaire – yes, it’s annoying to have to give away the million dollars, but if no one ever walks away with the cash, people will lose interest. That’s why they handed John Carpenter all those softball questions – they needed everyone after him to feel like there was a chance of winning.

That’s the important thing to remember – the drivers need motivation as well. To try their hardest, to do their best, they have to be racing for something. The goal they want to achieve has to be within their reach, and after a year or two of no one winning and everyone winding up dead, who would continue signing up to be a Death Race driver?

What’s the downside in letting one of the racers out, anyway? Let a guy out and give him some money - just enough that he feels like he’s safe and provided for. If he stays out, great, you can always produce a reality show about him. If he – and this is the far more likely outcome, given recidivism rates of violent offenders – goes back to crime, then you can throw him right back in jail and start promoting the triumphant comeback of Racer X! What’s Joan Allen so afraid of?

As ridiculous as Joan Allen’s plan was, it might have worked as a plot device had her actions made the least bit of sense. They refuse to do even that, though. As I mentioned earlier, the race takes place in three five-minute stages across three days. The first day, they race against each other, and are only allowed weapons on laps two and three. On the second day things get a little crazy. The film establishes that in the huge garage where the cars are stored the prison officials have been building something huge. On the second stage, we find out what it was – a tanker truck covered in weapons. Which, naturally, makes it look almost exactly like the truck from the Road Warrior.

This Juggernaut doesn’t serve any logical role in the race, either, like hanging back and destroying any car that falls behind. No, the Juggernaut rides right through the middle of the pack, using its guns, rocket launchers, and yes, even a tank cannon to destroy every car. It’s only by doing the completely unexpected and teaming up that Jason and Tyrese (playing “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo) are able to destroy the tanker – if they hadn’t, it would have undoubtedly killed both of them.

The fact that they manage to survive supremely pisses off Joan Allen, which makes almost no sense at all. After all the trouble she’s gone to in order to keep the Frankenstein ‘brand’ alive, what could she possibly have to gain by killing him rather definitively? And on the second day of the race, to boot! That’s right – had things gone the way Joan Allen had planned, all the racers would have been killed on the second day of a three-day event. So what would she have shown on the third day? Re-runs? A cartoon? Would she have had to refund the money to the 70 million people who paid a hundred dollars each for an event that’s no longer going to happen?

So yeah, Death Race is an incomparably stupid movie in many fundamental ways, but what really bothers me about it is that they didn’t manage to even get the little things right. There’s so many isolated examples of stupidity that there’s never a minute that goes by in the film where something stupid doesn’t happen.

For example, when Joan Allen decides to have her guards plant a bomb in Jason Statham’s car, they take a big stainless steel tube with a digital remote trigger on it and strap it to the bottom of the car. Which should be a good place to hide it, except for the fact that the car is on a lift at that point, and the underside of the car is completely visible. Maybe if they’d done this right before the race it would have made sense, but they plant the bomb hours before the race starts, long before Frankenstein’s team does the final check. Sure, they’re volunteer prisoner mechanics, but how on earth could they miss a giant bomb (that’s an entirely different colour) attached to the outside of the car?

On the scale of sabotaging cars, that’s only slightly more subtle than replacing the whitewalls with square wooden blocks.

Then, right at the end of the movie, after the race is over and everyone’s happy because it had the highest ratings of all time (despite the fact that people paid a hundred dollars to watch 90 seconds of a race before the drivers made it off the track and the cameras cut out), the head guard brings in a beautifully gift-wrapped package, which purports to be from her corporate overlords, who are especially pleased with her performance. It turns out that it’s the bomb, which Lovejoy took off the car and attached a new detonator to.

But how on earth did some shifty-looking convict get the wrapping and convince a guard that the item was a gift from corporate in the hour between finding the bomb and blowing Joan Allen up?

Even more insane is the idea that Jason Statham’s plan for escape revolved around driving off an island with only a single access road. His brilliant scheme? Have a reserve tank of gasoline that he can drop at a moment’s notice, setting the pursuing cars on fire. While I have no doubt that this would be an effective deterrent against cars behind Jason Statham, what exactly is his plan for getting past the cars and blockades ahead?

Oh wait, there aren’t any. No, any incredibly high-security facility with just one road leading to it has absolutely nothing on that road to physically deter anyone from driving up and attacking it. Beyond a chain-link fence and machine gun nest, of course. While that might seem like a reasonable amount of security, this is a facility where armed and armored cars are driven around! Wouldn’t you want something a little more sturdy in place to keep them there? There aren’t even any tire damage spikes or retractable traffic blocks. I’ve seen apartment buildings with more security than this road.

Now take a look at this:

That’s right, there are three knobs on the dashboard that light up when they’ve gone over a power-up – one for offense, one for defense, and one that never lights up. Sure, there’s a third kind of powerup, but it makes a bed of spikes pop up directly in front of you, killing you instantly. There’s probably not a light for that on your dashboard.

Also, there’s one part where the cars come screeching around a corner, firing a machine guns, and since it was the corner just before the pit stretch, this happens:

Is this the first time this has happened? Because it seems like, since the sandbags are only waist-high, and all the guys in the pit crews understand that a car covered in machine guns is going to come screeching around the corner at any second, they should know not to be standing up.

Also, in one final note, when Tommy enters Joan Allen’s office, carrying the bomb, he announces that ratings are ‘through the roof’. What does that mean, exactly? It’s not broadcast television with advertisers, it’s pay per view. They knew how many people had ordered it before the race began – the race is only five minutes long, it’s not like new people were going to be ordering the race because of the whole ‘Frankenstein escape scenario’ situation. Wouldn’t they have known about the ‘through the roof’ sales before the race began?

Ah, Death Race, you’re exactly as low quality as one would expect from Paul Anderson. Let’s just pray this becomes an AVP-style franchise so that he can turn it over to someone even worse than he is. I’m dying to see an even-awfuller “Death Race 2: Terminal Drive”.

* All prison statistics come from the Census of state and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2000 and 2005 Editions.Back to Article

* I’m sorry to admit that I don’t actually know what a Kardashian is. Back to Article

* Then I remembered the movie Wanted, and felt oddly warm towards Death Race.Back to Article

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