by HELEN GEIB
The best part of Death Race was the trailer for the next The Fast and the Furious movie. (Tag-line: “New Model. Original Parts.” Genius!) The people behind The Fast and the Furious franchise know how to make a good car racing movie. They’ve made three so far and I have high hopes for a fourth. Why weren’t the people behind Death Race able to make one good one?
The building blocks of a car racing movie are the cast of characters, the car racing, and the plotline that ties the racing sequences together. For the cast, assemble an attractive protagonist, charismatic antagonist, and colorful supporting characters. Most films also throw in a sexy love interest. The car racing must be exciting. No room for negotiation on that point. The underlying plot should be logical and internally consistent. Simple and unambiguous (e.g., good vs. evil) is the safest approach, although an ambitious film may dress up the basic plotline with interesting complications.
Death Race does an acceptable job with its characters and actors. Jason Statham plays the hero (although I prefer him as “the transporter”). Ian McShane makes for a suitably colorful sidekick as a crusty long-time prisoner and mechanic extraordinaire. Joan Allen is the evil prison Warden and mastermind behind “the death race.” Natalie Martinez takes up space as the sexy love interest and Tyrese Gibson is the premiere rival driver. A number of other characters are introduced as if they are going to have some importance to the film, only to be promptly killed off or relegated to the sidelines to function as superficially animate objects for the principal characters to bounce lines off.
For the racing, the filmmakers gave themselves the very significant handicap of a closed course. Watching a bunch of cars drive laps around a track is boring. Car racing movies have taken various approaches to overcoming this problem. Street racing movies such as The Fast and the Furious films and cross-country racing movies like the original Death Race sidestep it entirely. The CG-heavy Speed Racer made use of its futuristic setting to create a racetrack that looks like a rollercoaster. More traditionally-minded films concentrate on the human drama with frequent cross-cutting between close-ups of the drivers, pit crews, and spectators.
Death Race makes some use of all of these strategies. The race is not run on a regular track. Instead, the racecourse is laid out in an abandoned industrial site; the shells of buildings provide visual interest and the equipment remnants that litter the track make it an obstacle course. There is plenty of cross-cutting between the drivers, pit crews, and spectators, in this case primarily the Warden and her flunkies. The film also arms the cars with a battery of weapons (guns, smoke screens, defensive armor that doubles as a projectile weapon, etc.) and gives the Warden power to turn the weapons on and off.
Effectuating this last point appears to be the only reason for the film’s dystopian future setting; it is certainly the only use the filmmakers put it to. The film consistently has the drivers pay more attention to trying to kill each other than to trying to effectively navigate the course, with many drivers dispatched for the sole purpose of demonstrating the available range of armaments. The resolute focus on mayhem is counter-productive to building excitement. Instead of enlivening the action with good driving, the film piles on additional firepower. Death Race is mostly about the death, not the race. The result: the racing sequences are repetitive and dull.
The infatuation with brutality and blood also compromises the plot. The plot is unnecessarily complicated and the film repeatedly breaks its own ground rules for no reason, or at least no reason except to kill off more people.
While I could easily write as much again in describing the film’s many needlessly stupid plot points, I will limit myself to one prime example. The race is held over three days. It generates revenue using a daily pay-per-view system; thus, maximum revenue is generated when the race becomes more competitive as it proceeds and, of course, lasts for the full three days. The Warden runs the race for the sole purpose of making money. The entire film is premised on this fact. So why on day two does the Warden send an armored truck manned by guards onto the course to kill all the drivers? Yes, not just the nothing drivers who are taken out first, but all the drivers including the top racers the Warden is counting on to bring in the big bucks on day three. Answer: because this movie is gratuitously stupid.