The Death Race series is the ultimate male fantasy with fast cars, hot women, explosions, fights and violence so today I thought I’d take a look back at the series starting with the 1975 classic Death Race 2000.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
I only watched this for the first time a few years ago and despite being very dated, Death Race 2000 still has a lot going for it.
I know I’m in the minority but I preferred the Jason Statham (sort of) remake; I can understand why people like this more as it’s a hell of a lot ballsier with some hilarious satire. There are moments in this movie where you aren’t sure whether you should laugh or be shocked, especially with the racers getting points for running people over.
So men, women and children of all ages are targets and the “Euthanasia Day” scene was definitely one of the more shockingly funny moments.
It still has the same themes of Americans loving violence and was almost a precursor to reality TV. The character of Frankenstein is played by David Carradine and although his outfit is hilarious by today’s standards, he still manages to be pretty cool and is a more layered character than you’d maybe expect.
Sylvester Stallone practically steals the entire movie though as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo; he’s pretty scary as the psycho racer and made me think he should play villains more often.
The movie has plenty of nudity and violence which is always a plus but you might question yourself for laughing at a few scenes.
In terms of action, the entire movie is essentially one big car chase however, a lot of the scenes are sped up to make it look like the cars are going faster than they are. There is a fight scene between Carradine and Stallone which isn’t really anything to write home about.
The music is hilariously dated and the movie in general doesn’t really hold up well but there’s enough to make it worth checking out for curiosity.
I wouldn’t really compare it to to Statham’s Death Race as it’s a very different film from a very different era but for me both films have their merits.
Overall, Death Race 2000 is shockingly funny in parts with a stand-out performance from Stallone and David Carradine being as cool as ever.
Death Race (2008)
Jason Statham stars in the massively entertaining reboot which keeps the general idea of the Death Race but it gets rid of the campiness and gives it a grittier and more modern feel which frankly I much prefer. This time it’s convicts who race and rather than the comedic looking cars this is more post-apocalyptic looking with the vehicles looking like they belong in the world of Mad Max. Death Race has a darker and less humorous tone and it really works in its favour giving us some excellent race scenes and violent kills mostly done practically so there is no noticeable CG used.
Statham is frankly the same as he is in everything but that’s why we love him and his former racecar driver Jensen Aimes is sympathetic but also not scared of a fight which is quickly established in the opening scenes after he loses his job and joins in a riot fighting with police. Then he goes home to his wife and baby who he clearly adores and will do anything for. As we all know happiness never lasts and Jensen’s wife is murdered and he is framed for it; he is sent away for it to the same prison that hosts the Death Race run by the warden (played by Joan Allen). After the previous Frankenstein died in a fiery wreck she wants him to race for his freedom.
Despite having a more serious tone it still has moments of cheesiness and lame dialogue like “We’ll see who shits on the sidewalk”… which to this day I’m not entirely sure what that means. I also hate how Ian McShane’s character breaks the fourth wall at the end saying “I love this game”.
Tyrese takes over the role of Machine Gun Joe from Sylvester Stallone and it’s no secret that I normally can’t stand him in anything but he’s actually less of a squealy bitch in this than he is in the Fast & Furious movies making this is one of his better roles. Robin Shou has a rather thankless role as racer 14K who is unceremoniously killed off and he barely gets any screen time which was a waste.
Paul Haslinger’s score is one of my favourite elements giving off an industrial sound which works perfectly in the grey and murky “future” and it has some badass rock guitars too which amp up the racing scenes.
I love how the female racers are ridiculously hot and not even remotely believable but they do provide some nice eye candy with Natalie Martinez looking incredible.
There is no shortage of action with several fight scenes although I noticed with the most recent viewing that camera moved around during one particular fight so we never actually saw any time someone got hit which was frustrating.
Overall, Death Race is a fun reboot with Statham doing what he does best and no shortage of vehicular carnage an action; as I said above I think I prefer it to Death Race 2000 as I prefer the more serious tone.
Death Race 2 (2010)
Death Race 2 was a huge surprise and I remember when I first saw it a few years ago I was blown away by the action in it considering this is a straight to DVD movie. This prequel starring Luke Goss, Danny Trejo, Sean Bean and Ving Rhames is one of of my favourite entries in the series and tells the story of how the character of “Frankenstein” becomes the the masked driver we all know.
It has some truly mind-blowing action including a flamethrower fight, which is officially the stuff of legend. The driving scenes are all well executed with some crazy stunts with only the odd blue screen moment, but it’s still more impressive than the majority of big budget fare we see these days.
Luke Goss has long since proven his action hero chops and he gets to kick all kinds of ass in this movie behind the wheel of the car and in the prison.
The supporting cast are all great including Sean Bean as the villain who set up Goss’ character. It’s nice to see Danny Trejo in a good guy role and it’s amazing that he has become an action star in his 60’s with his own Machete franchise. I’m still waiting for Machete Kills Again in Space…
Tanit Phoenix plays the love interest who not only looks stunning, but has a good role as Frankenstein’s co-pilot Katrina.
Lauren Cohan plays the villainous September Jones who basically creates the idea of Death Race after her initial idea of the inmates fighting each other to the death doesn’t quite catch on.
Ving Rhames has really become a major action star these days but he sadly doesn’t get to beat anyone up in this movie and is more of a suit.
We’ve got the same music themes as the original Statham movie which is fantastic as I love it when there is continuity in a movie series, especially with the music. Paul Haslinger returns as the composer and does an excellent job of ratcheting up the excitement.
Overall, Death Race 2 should not be overlooked and is a testament to what you can do without a huge budget, as long as you have a decent imagination.
Death Race 3: Inferno (2013)
Death Race: Inferno is another rollicking thrill ride of a movie; the highlight of the second movie was the flamethrower fight, but in this movie cars have flamethrowers and the action is truly spectacular. It goes to show that you don’t need a massive budget to create a great looking action movie.
The majority of the cast from Death Race 2 all return including Luke Goss, Ving Rhames, Tanit Phoenix and Danny Trejo. There are also a few new additions including Dougray Scott as the over the top villain Niles York; he’s arguably the only weak-spot of the film as he’s more of an ass rather than threatening.
Luke Goss has become quite the action star these days and he’s found his iconic role as Frankenstein; Tanit Phoenix is a Goddess and every moment she’s on screen she lights it up.
I can’t stress enough how awesome the action is in this movie; real explosions and stunts with little to no CGI, which always impresses me in this day and age. The cinematography is wonderful making the deserts look otherworldly. Director Roel Reiné is one of the best action directors working today and I see him having a great career ahead of him.
The movie remains hard R too, with plenty of violence, exploding heads and gratuitous nudity for all the family.
I like how this movie takes the race out of the prison and gives us some new locations. It has a wider scope and just gives a grander sense of scale to the action.
There are some nice twists and turns in the script and the movie ticks all of the boxes you’d look for in an action movie.
The music is now done by Trevor Morris, replacing Paul Haslinger, which is a shame as I love Haslinger’s scores to the previous movies. Morris though brings his own sound to it with some awesome electric guitars and maybe the odd nod towards Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight soundtrack.
Overall, Death Race: Inferno is anther winner for this series and is never short on awesome action and entertaining characters.
Death Race 2050 (2017)
Arguably my least favourite entry Death Race 2050 keeps the same tone as the Roger Corman classic Death Race 2000 so after the gritty reboot this goes back to the over the top campiness of the original.
This time Frankenstein is played by Manu Bennett (Arrow) who is the best thing about the movie as he is perfectly cast as the crotchety loner who lives for the Death Race and has no interest in having a co-pilot however, when he meets Annie (Marci Miller) he slowly begins to change his tune but is Annie who she says she is or does she have an ulterior motive?
Death Race 2050 is at times hilarious with its satire of American culture and over the top violence with a memorable cast of characters like Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead) and Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku). It’s a shame the effects are so terrible; where the Statham led reboot has the race scenes done practically this has a ton of unconvincing greenscreen and CGI visuals taking away any thrills but I think that’s kind of the point. It looks cheap so it has the same vibe as Death Race 2000 so it feels like it takes place in the same world.
Yancy Butler from Hard Target also has a sizable role so it’s nice to see her again as she has been rather quiet of late.
Overall, Death Race 2050 is an entertaining enough throwback to the wackiness of the original Death Race 2000 but I’m not sure modern audiences would particularly enjoy it.
Death Race: Beyond Anarchy (2018)
The most recent entry in the series is also the bloodiest making it easily the most violent Death Race yet. We’ve got people getting dismembered with chainsaws, blood squibs galore, stabbings, shootings, fights and to top it all off nearly constant nudity… so there isn’t much to dislike. Entitled Beyond Anarchy it really is the perfect name as you really get the feeling of a world gone wild where there are truly no holds barred.
Frankenstein is no longer the good guy but has taken over the Sprawl and runs it like a dictator; the Sprawl is a massive prison run by a private security firm where the Death Races are held and it’s very much a case of kill or be killed. It feels more like Mad Max on steroids with some surprisingly impressive action scenes considering this is straight to DVD fare; it’s all practical explosions and car crashes so the set-pieces are all nicely done and far better than you’d maybe expect.
Danny Trejo returns and now we have Danny Glover as Baltimore Bob who is in charge of working on some of the cars and he ends up working with the mysterious newcomer Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan) who is determined to race but his reasons are unknown until later on in the film. He’s certainly broody enough to fit in the world of Death Race and has the moves in the fight scenes; he also spends a lot of the runtime with his shirt off to flash his abs. I do miss Luke Goss and Jason Statham though and would have loved to see them return in some capacity but I guess it isn’t meant to be. Perhaps for a future entry all the previous winners are picked up and forced to race for a battle royale…
Beyond Anarchy has the perfect visual aesthetic where it genuinely looks like a dystopian future; I always thought the first Death Race with Statham was a bit strange how the women were all still smoking hot despite the poverty but in this one they all look totally nuts and it works better to make it a bit more believable.
Overall, Death Race: Beyond Anarchy is another fun entry in this action-packed series and I keep feeling like I am meant to hate them as they aren’t “high art” but screw that; it has all the races, crashes and bloodshed you could want so fans won’t be disappointed.
So there you have it; my thoughts on the Death Series. I think each movie has something to enjoy and although Death Race 2000 and Death Race 2050 may not be for everyone they are worth watching for the satirical aspect and over the top violence.