Racing Movie Month: "Death Race" (2008) Review

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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Rating: R
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: August 22, 2008
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Genre: Action / Sci-fi / Thriller

Although many people consider this 2008 movie a remake of the 1975 film "Death Race 2000," its director has been quoted as saying that he considers it something of a prequel. Whatever the timeline of the movies is, "Death Race" is a great movie that is fast-paced, gritty, filled to the brim with themes and parallels, and even a little bit funny. The film is set after an economic collapse in 2012. However, the cars involved in the race are filled with over-the-top weaponry, while the track is a technological marvel that activates different features of the cars, giving the film a futuristic feeling.

An economic collapse in 2012 leads to an increase in criminal activity. This, in turn, leads to privatized, for-profit prisons that spring up to meet the demand of housing all of these criminals. The main character, Jensen Ames, played by Jason Statham, however, is a citizen who still attempts to make ends meet through legal means.

After a day at work, during which the business is closed, Ames heads home in hopes of assuring his wife that he will manage to find a way to continue caring for her and their daughter. Tragically, a disastrous break-in just a few minutes later. Ames' wife is murdered and he is framed for the crime.

To live out his sentence, the protagonist is sent to a deadly prison island that profits off its prisoners by pitting them against one another in the notorious Death Race. The races are televised on a pay-per-view model that brings in enough money to make the warden, Hennessey, a wealthy woman. It is soon revealed that she intends for Ames to take on the mantle of the race's prime competitor, Frankenstein.

The deadly race earns its name through the dangerous modifications to the cars, which are activated with special blocks on the track. These modifications include both weapons and defensive features to help the driver take the others out of the race while he continues on. There are also blocks that trigger dangerous additions to the track itself.

These things combined make the movie a wild ride that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, rooting for the protagonist while cheering on the impressive explosions and weapons that cut down everyone else. This great film is not, however, just a way to get a gritty action fix. The movie has a few key themes, including prison privatization, morality and human nature, that make the film deeper than explosions and blood.

Movies are great ways to look at societal issues, and the privatization of prisons is an interesting theme in this movie. The film does a great job of showing the extreme negative aspects of a privatized prison. Framing people in order to get them into the prison, treating inmates as entertainment and putting inmates in mortal danger are normal and natural in the world of "Death Race." The warden also has complete power over who walks free, subverting the modern judicial system.

Morality is an interesting lens through which to look at the movie. The viewer is never told who is deserving of punishment and who is in prison because of the broken judicial system. Due to this, it is impossible to know how many of the racers are simply being punished for no reason.

The warden is only interested in money, as proven by the cheats and unexpected changes that she adds to the three-day race. The protagonist does some morally gray things, but only in hopes of getting free to get back to his daughter.

The human-nature theme of this movie has two layers. That the warden makes money off of her Death Race pay-per-view shows the love of violence that many people have. The viewers in the film seem not to care that they are watching people die and just want the entertainment. This is turned into an interesting twist when the comparison is drawn to the theater audience who paid to see the movie on the big screen or who bought a copy to watch at home.

These themes take a movie that is pure action on the surface to a whole new level. The movie is an impressive blend of straight action and philosophical thought that deserves a re-watch or two in order to catch the nuances of the various themes.

Each actor brings a wonderful performance to this film, and it sells the combination of a private prison and a deadly past-time. The gritty race sequences mask the deeper angles of the movie and draw in the audience, urging the viewers to soak up the action.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tags: Death Race