|Death Race is a 2008 action 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 an interview and 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. 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.
A direct-to-DVD prequel to the film, Death Race 2, was released on October 31, 2010.
In 2012, the economy of the United States collapses. Unemployment and crime rates skyrocket, and the sharp increase of convicted criminals leads to the privatization of prisons for profit. For pay-per-view entertainment, a modern gladiator game called “Death Race” is invented at the Terminal Island penitentiary using the prisoners as players. Drivers are paired with navigators to assist them with maintenance, weapons, and track guidance. There are three types of special pads on the track, shields, swords, and death heads, that a car can activate by running over with all four tires. Shields activate a car’s defensive weapons, swords activate a car’s offensive weapons, and death heads, when activated, extend a row of spikes out of the ground that impales a pursuing car, and then retracts back into the ground, crushing the car and finishing off any survivors. A single Death Race takes place over three days and is divided into three stages. The first two stages are elimination rounds, where drivers eliminate as much competition as they can without getting themselves killed. The remaining drivers then compete in the final stage, where the goal is to be the first to cross the finish line without getting killed. If a driver can survive and win five races, they’re freed, although nobody has ever done so as they all end up dead eventually.
At the end of one race, a masked driver named Frankenstein (David Carradine) is nearing the finish line against his only surviving competitor, rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). His navigator, Case (Natalie Martinez), reports that his defensive weapons are malfunctioning, and is ordered to eject from the car shortly before Joe blows it up. Six months later, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is sent to Terminal Island after being framed for his wife’s murder. The warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen), informs Ames that – unknown to the public and other racers – Frankenstein is dead, but as he was so wildly popular, she wants to keep his legend alive for the ratings. She coerces Ames to clandestinely assume the persona; Ames would only need to win one race to earn his freedom and take back his baby daughter since Frankenstein won four, and by wearing Frankenstein’s mask, only few people will know he’s not really Frankenstein. His maintenance crew, Coach (Ian McShane), Gunner (Jacob Vargas), and Lists (Frederick Koehler) are among those who know this and quickly acquaint Ames with his competition.
On the first day, Ames meets Case, who also knows he’s not the real Frankenstein. Ames has a rough first go, coming in last place, and three racers are eliminated. His defensive weapons also mysteriously malfunctioned, just like last time. Ames pieces together that one of the racers, Pachenko (Max Ryan), was the one who stabbed his wife at the behest of Hennessey so she could recruit him as Frank’s replacement for huge profits. During the second stage, 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 Frank or Ames, just stop them from winning so Frankenstein could remain in Death Race. Ames then personally dispatches Pachenko by brutally breaking his neck, and temporarily teams up with Machine Gun Joe to destroy a massive 18 wheel tanker with many weapons that kills the other competitors to boost the ratings even higher. This tips Joe off to Frank’s real identity, and afterward they have a talk.
Hennessey, aware that Ames knows her angle, tries to maintain the ruse of granting him freedom but asks him to consider staying on permanently as Frankenstein. As a precaution, she secretly has an explosive planted under his car before the start of the third round, knowing that she can replace Ames as she used him to replace Frankenstein. The stage begins, and Hennessey manipulates the track in Joe’s favor from her control room. Right when Joe appears victorious, they both escape through a damaged wall previously discovered by examining footage of another racer’s demise. Hennessey tries to activate the bomb, but the maintenance crew had found it and removed it prior to the race. Hennessey then sends attack helicopters after Ames and Joe, who make it past the bridge that connects the island to the mainland and split up, and the helicopters follow Ames under Hennessey’s orders. Case offers herself as bait in the Frankenstein costume and mask to repay the old Frank, and because she’d already been given her release papers. She is captured while the two men escape.
Later, Hennessey is given an anonymous gift in recognition of her record-breaking ratings. It turns out to be the bomb she originally meant for Ames, with a note saying: “WARMEST REGARDS, YOUR MONSTER”. At that moment, Coach remotely detonates the bomb, blowing up her office with her in it. Six months afterward, Joe, Ames, and his baby girl are shown living honestly in Mexico, where Case joins them, and Ames reflects on how no one could love his daughter more than he does.
The cars in the film are real vehicles that have been heavily modified with armor plating, machine guns and defensive weapons:
- Frankenstein’s Monster – A Fifth-generation Ford Mustang armed with 2 M134s, smokescreen, napalm and oil slick for defense, as well as a 6-inch-thick (150 mm) detachable steel plate on the rear bumper called “The Tombstone”. It also has an ejector seat for the navigator and a cigarette lighter.
- Dodge Ram – Machine Gun Joe’s truck, armed with a cowcatcher, 4 hood-mounted Browning M1919, 2 side-mounted Vulcan cannons and Russian RPG-7s on the roof.
- Porsche 911 – 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 – A chop top, 1967 Buick Riviera GS (serial #494877H903903) armed with 4 German hood-mounted MG-34s and 2 internal PPSh-41 submachine guns also with 2 Uzis mounted in the grille.
- 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 Riviera “Boat tail” – Riggins’ car. Caltrops for Defense and twin Browning M1919 machine guns in the passenger side windscreen.
- Jaguar XJS – British sports car driven by Travis with 2 .50 cal M2 Browning machine guns.
- Chrysler 300C – Luxury sedan 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.
- BMW E32 – Siad’s car. Armed with a single M134.
- The Dreadnaught – An 18 wheel tanker modified by Hennessy into an armored vehicle with .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns, flame thrower, grenade launchers, spikes on the wheel hubs, bulldozer blade, chained caltrops and a M1A1 tank turret.
- 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS – Custom muscle car driven by Case at the end of the film.