Friday, 12 February 2010

Death Race 2008

As a rule I don't like remakes of films. I especially don't like remakes of films that I love. If Brad Pitt ever gets his Bullit remake project off the floor he's a dead man. Simple as. That's why I hadn't watched 2008's Death Race before, but seeing it in Tescos for a couple of quid and having restarted the A&A project I felt morally obliged to do so, if only to stop the inevitable questions of "have you seen..." and the inevitable accusations that "you took this idea from...".

As it turns out it's far enough removed from the original cult film Death Race 2000 so that it's not really a remake nor a "re-imagining" - it stands on it's own feet as a different film. Whether it's any good or not or whether it's independence from it's sire works in it's favour is a different matter.

Death Race 2000 worked, and worked well, because it knew that it's central premise was so nasty that it would only work when exaggerated to ridiculous levels and played for the blackest of black laughs. It's so stupidly OTT with it's comic strip characters that the satire (a play on the Roman "bread and circuses" idea distracting the populace from what a mess that everything is in) works well. It was a stroke of genius creating a film that had a premise that nobody had seen before, and hiding a biting satire within what was basically a Grindhouse movie that was actually a lot, lot cleverer than it wanted to admit to.

Death Race 2008 (not it's title but it's what we will call it) doesn't have any of this. It's a typical dumb action movie with stereotype characters. I'm not a fan of dumb action movies so I won't comment how good or bad it is as an action movie. This is A&A - we are only interested in the cars with guns on them.

2000 set up the background of a bankrupt US (now renamed the United Provinces) distracted from the bitter reality of day-to-day life by a coast-to-coast version of a Roman gladiatorial battle. 2008 has the US prison system handed over to private contractors, turning their inmates into money spinners by showing the Death Race, a guns-with-cars race in which lifers attempt to win their freedom by winning five three-race tournaments.

Film-wise, 2008 scores in that it's driving and stunts are real. There are no false CGI crashes, all cars that appear crashed are crashed even down to the hugely impressive crash of "The Dreadnought", a huge fluids tanker crash. Fans of all the great car chase films like Bullit, French Connection, Ronin etc. will appreciate it for that.

However 2008 falls flat in that, bizarrely for it's theme, it's actually too realistic. As the producer and director point out in the assorted features on the disc, we have reality television and we have the bandwidth to stream television programming via the Internet thereby ducking a lot of regulation issues as to what gets shown on TV. The Death Race is broadcast not by state-sponsored television but on a Pay-Per-View Internet stream so rather than 2000's event being spoon-fed to a supine populace, 2008's is actually watched by people who now choose to cough up the money to do it. This changes the whole feel of what is going on - now it becomes a snuff film for the morbidly curious, rather than an distracting tool of social control. The characters are all prison-movie stereotypes so that, in the world of Hollywood at least, 2008 comes across as plausible and accordingly the satire suffers. It's far less exaggerated than something like Brasseye which satirised by showing the ridiculous state of it's subject matter taken to it's logical, if ludicrous, outcome.

From a drama point of view it also falls flat in that the whole event is more fixed than professional wrestling - it's blatantly obvious that the audience wants a final between just the two favourites and every other driver will be killed by the organisers in order to arrange this.

Years ago, back on the Road Rage V8 forums Chris Johnston made the point that background to games like A&A have no cinematic or literary progenitor - they are an entirely artificial game construct, very much like the D&D-style "dungeons and PC party" setup doesn't really hark back to anything in it's source material. Some people will point at The Road Warrior but while that has the post-apoc aesthetic down to a tee that film isn't about guns. From memory I think Humongous has a few, carefully hoarded bullets in his gun case and the shotgun shells given to Max (which he sends the feral child out onto the bonnet of the semi to retrieve) are duff anyway. Chris's very good point was that the automotive combat genre had mutated into cars-with-guns because it is easier to create a game of shooting than it is ramming.

It's strange but the whole genre of cars-with-guns really comes from Car Wars and the post-apoc-cars-with-guns is just a fan creation as Car Wars's aesthetic was all shiny plastic/ceramic armour and electric engines. Death Race is therefore the film of the game of the film as it uses cars-with-guns that haven't really turned up in film before. It's a purely game background but via gaming and computer gaming and a wholly inaccurate picture of The Road Warrior this sort of thing has become common currency.

It's therefore worth watching Death Race 2008, not for any merits it has, but purely because it's possibly the first time that the whole cars-with-guns thing has broken out of the gaming/videogaming sector.

TL;DR - Dumb, cliched action film, but cars with guns.

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