Nothing in director Paul W.S. Anderson's schlock drawer -- not "Mortal Kombat," not "Event Horizon," not "Resident Evil," not "Alien vs. Predator" -- prepares you for the peppy, good-time nastiness that is "Death Race." It's a loose remake of "Death Race 2000" (1975), which imagined a bloodthirsty nation crazy for a cross-country rally full of flying, dying spectators and ruthlessly sociopathic drivers, not to mention Mary Woronov as the most fearsome thing on four wheels. Anderson's version goes its own frenetic way, and it's one of those vicious larks that just plain hit the spot. It hits the spot, throws 'er into reverse and hits the spot again, before machine-gunning it and ramming it head-on for the fun of it. Sadistic? Yessir. But our hero, a seething kettle of violence played by Jason Statham, is a devoted father of a sweet little girl who needs him, so it's sadism with a heart.
The '75 version veered wildly from camp to slapstick to gore. This one's a more even-toned affair, heavy on the gun-metal-gray color palette and the abandoned-foundry aesthetic. The year is 2012. Economy's ruined. The prison system lies in the clutches of private enterprise, and the most maximum of all maximum-security prisons is Terminal Island, where rough men lead rough lives and the bravest of them compete in the nation's most popular sporting event: Death Race.
The warden, who apparently grew up catching "Brute Force" at every available prison-film retrospective, controls everything about the murderous affair: who gets to deploy weaponry, and when, and who might win his freedom. Joan Allen plays this authoritarian witch with a steely, implacable air. Despite what appear to be dangerous levels of forehead-freezification (hope it's temporary!), Allen's quite good. In his 1.3-note way, so is Statham, whose abs have already signed up for the "Death Race" sequel, along with his glower.
Ian McShane has a high old time as Statham's grizzled Robert Duvall-esque racing coach. Tyrese Gibson brings the full seethe to the role of Machine Gun Joe, chief rival of Statham's Jensen Ames. And as Ames' cohort, track adviser and cleavage administrator, Natalie Martinez really knows how to get out of a tricked-out vehicle in slow motion while removing her sunglasses.
I'm making the movie out to be a different sort of cheese than it is, I fear. Anderson, who wrote the script, lays out the big frame-up (Ames takes the rap for his wife's murder) in a way that's efficient and effective. Aping the conventional three-act screenplay structure, the story's three races provide natural off-track breathers for ... well, for various other ways to kill somebody, or nearly.
Anderson's visual-spatial skills are limited at best: You never get the crucial establishing shot of the damn track, for one thing; for another, Anderson never seems to quit moving the frame in that "NYPD Blue"-derived whoopsie-daisy-can't-hold-still style. Yet I came out of "Death Race" strangely satisfied. It's just junk and noise and blood lust and decapitations plus "Wacky Races" gimmickry. (Let's amend that: It's "Wacky Bloodthirsty Sadistic Races" gimmickry.) But the audience whooped it up when the Statham and Gibson characters conspired to destroy that souped-up prison truck with the flamethrower in Race 2.
Of course it's like a video game. So was "Shoot 'Em Up," which I hated. So was "Wanted," which I didn't like much. I like this one. I admire its purity of heart and frankness of intention, and even though Anderson has a lot to learn about shaping an extended action sequence, when that big truck flipped up in the air, vanquished, I was, like, wow. Cool.
MPAA rating: R (strong violence and language).
Running time: 1:45
Starring: Jason Statham (Jensen Ames); Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe); Joan Allen (Warden Hennessey); Ian McShane (Coach); Natalie Martinez (Case)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; written by Anderson, based on the film "Death Race 2000"; photographed by Scott Kevan; edited by Niven Howie; music by Paul Haslinger; production design by Paul Denham Austerberry; produced by Paula Wagner, Jeremy Bolt and Anderson.
A Universal Pictures release.
"Death Race" Movie Production Notes
Terminal Island: The very near future.
The world's hunger for extreme sports and reality competitions has grown into reality TV bloodlust. Now, the most extreme racing competition has emerged and its contestants are murderous prisoners. Tricked-out cars, caged thugs and smoking-hot navigators combine to create a juggernaut series with bigger ratings than the Super Bowl. The rules of the Death Race are simple: Win five events, and you're set free. Lose and you're road kill splashed across the Internet.
International action star JASON STATHAM (the Transporter series, The Bank Job) leads the action-thriller's cast as three-time speedway champion Jensen Ames, an ex-con framed for a gruesome murder. Forced to don the mask of the mythical driver Frankenstein, a Death Race crowd favorite who seems impossible to kill, Ames is given an easy choice by Terminal Island's ruthless Warden Hennessey (JOAN ALLEN of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum): Suit up and drive or never see his little girl again.
His face hidden by a hideous mask, one convict will enter an insane three-day challenge in order to gain freedom. But to claim the prize, Ames must survive a gauntlet of the most vicious criminals-including nemesis Machine Gun Joe (TYRESE GIBSON of Transformers, 2 Fast 2 Furious)-in the country's toughest prison. Trained by his coach (IAN MCSHANE of Deadwood, The Golden Compass) to drive a monster Mustang V8 Fastback outfitted with 2 mounted mini-guns, flamethrowers and napalm, an innocent man will destroy everything in his path to win the most twisted spectator sport on Earth.
Revving Up for Death Race
It is not surprising that British filmmaking partners Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt were fans of executive producer Roger Corman's Death Race 2000. Considering the duo first gained notoriety for Shopping-a dark tale about joyriding youth set in the near future-it seems only natural the world created by producer Corman and director Paul Bartel in 1975 would inspire their choices.
Recalls Anderson of his memories of the original: "I was a big fan of the Corman movie. I saw it on video when I was still living in England as a teenager. It was the movie your parents didn't want you to see, because it was just packed with senseless violence and unmotivated nudity. So, of course, I just loved it."
At a screening for Shopping at the 7th Annual Tokyo International Film Festival, producer Bolt and Anderson first met Corman and discussed the idea of reworking Death Race 2000 for a new audience. At the time, Anderson and Bolt were about to make Event Horizon for Paramount, the studio where they first met Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise. The production partners had just launched C/W Productions and expressed interest in developing the project.
Bolt recounts: "I met with Paula at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and she thought it was a fantastic idea. They came aboard, optioned the material under their deal with Paramount and started to develop it. At that point, the idea was a movie similar in spirit to Roger's film. In other words, it was slightly satirical."
More than a decade would pass before the project would finally gel. Taking their cue from society's current obsession with reality television, Anderson and the producers decided to set the film in a dystopian near future. There, they would incorporate the most extreme of reality TV and turn the drivers into prisoners fighting a gladiatorial battle.
Anderson, who by this time had written and directed successful actioners such as Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, took over writing duties, and the project found a home at Universal. Of the Earth he imagined, he explains, "It's a slightly rougher world than we live in now, but still very much recognizable. The explosion in crime rates and the fact that reality television is big have led to the Death Race. It's the ultimate in reality television: nine racers who race to the death on this sealed course. They're the gladiators of our time, and the racetrack is their coliseum."
While this action-thriller is quite different from Corman's classic, one thing would not change. The fans are just as zealous in their passion for favorite drivers to massacre competitors. The more blood shed, the happier these Romans.
About the Cast "Death Race"
When casting Death Race, the filmmakers looked for performers who embodied the gritty realism of the world Anderson imagined. After meeting him, the director felt British actor Jason Statham was his Jensen Ames. "The idea was to fashion a very blue-collar hero," offers Anderson. "That's why I thought Jason was a perfect choice to play Jensen, a man who's got a hard-luck story."
Through Ames, Anderson sets up the future. In the violent, impoverished world, there is little hope, but Ames has found a reason to live. "He's working in a crumbling, rust-belt town as a steel worker. The steelworks is closing down, and he's just lost his job," says Anderson. "This is a tough guy who's been to prison before and would've gone back if it weren't for the fact that he's found this woman who loves him. They've had a child together, and she's his second chance at life."
It didn't hurt the lifetime athlete's chance at landing the part that in his long résumé of action films-from The Transporter series to Crank and The Bank Job-he has done a good deal of his own stunt work. Apart from the attraction of such a role and fast cars, Statham was also impressed by how intricate Anderson's vision of the near future was. "Paul was a wealth of information about this story," recalls Statham. "It was so detailed: pictures of the cars, the emotion of the character; he knew every beat of the story. I thought the script was emotional, fun, dark, violent and sexy."
Statham, a self-professed "massive car geek," especially liked the sketches of the cars Anderson showed him, particularly those of the Mustang that he'd be driving as Hennessey's "Frankenstein." "We've seen cars with nitrous oxide systems before, but I've never seen anything like what Paul does in this movie," Statham says.
For the warden who forces Ames to become her star driver and the coach who trains him, the producers didn't want stock character actors. They looked to dramatic performers such as Joan Allen and Ian McShane to add credibility. "You're not used to seeing Joan Allen in a movie like this," laughs Bolt. "It was awesome to hear her swearing like a trooper, because I associated her with roles like a female president or a headmistress."
Tony Award-winning and three-time Academy Award nominee Allen was asked to play Warden Claire Hennessey, a well-tailored jailer who has all the power on Terminal Island. "It was a very cool script, and I was really taken with the characters," Allen recalls. "I thought the cars were amazing and the concept was exciting. It reminded me of Road Warrior and Blade Runner in look and feel. After I met Paul and saw how he was conceiving it, I just thought, 'Wow, this could be really incredibly cool.'"
The actor looked forward to taking on a character like no one she'd played before: an extremely pious sociopath. "Hennessey is an interesting study of somebody who gets wrapped up in the media and numbers and forgets human lives are at stake," Allen continues. "My character only sees Death Race as an incredibly popular show that people really want to watch. She takes pride in that and gets kickbacks from it."
For the role of Frankenstein's Coach, the filmmakers turned to Ian McShane, most recently seen on Broadway in Daniel Sullivan's revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. The actor was interested in being a part of a film he describes as "like NASCAR to the death, inside prison. Everybody tunes in to watch convicts kill themselves in their cars and blast the crap out of each other around this racetrack." For his part, McShane believes, "Coach is one of the good guys-an honest man who's been in prison for so long that he's adapted and made it his home. As the chief mechanic, he knows all the cars, but he mainly works on Frankenstein's Mustang."
Multiplatinum-selling musician and actor Tyrese Gibson knew playing a ruthless murderer would be a challenge. "Machine Gun Joe is evil," says Gibson. "He's an inmate, a leader and a killer. This role was so dark. It was really hard for me to come on set and be dark and then, between takes, get back to being my normal self: fun, laughing, cracking jokes."
NATALIE MARTINEZ stars as the sexy and tough Case, who is shipped in from the women's jail-as are almost all navigators. Her job, as we are led to believe, is to help Frankenstein to victory in the Death Race. But Case has got a couple of sneaky moves of her own. "She's in jail, and the warden's waving freedom around," explains Martinez. "Case is very easily manipulated to do anything anybody wants." Martinez, however, did not have to be coerced to hang tough. During production, the performer literally threw herself into her role, even hanging out of the window of the moving Monster during gunfire takes.
Cast as Frankenstein and Coach's pit crew were JACOB VARGAS as wiseguy Gunner and FRED KOEHLER as the brilliant-but-shy Lists. Frankenstein's competition is a rogues' gallery of hardened men. They include mob man Yao Kang, aka 14K (ROBIN SHOU); The Grimm Reaper, aka Grimm (ROBERT LASARDO), a clinical psychopath who worships the warden; and Travis Colt (JUSTIN MADER), a former NASCAR driver who killed several innocent people when wasted. Ames also has to contend with one of Hennessey's favorite drivers, psycho neo-Nazi gang leader Slovo "Angel Wings" Pachenko (MAX RYAN), as well as the warden's henchman, Ulrich (JASON CLARKE).
Cast and crew locked, it was time to create a holding facility that would serve as the last stop for those who've had a life of crime...and a racetrack from which most would never leave.