Don't tell Ben Bernanke, but the U.S. economy collapses before 2012. Work is impossible to find. People are starving. And prison camps are overflowing. Things have generally gone to the dogs—an expression that's taken on new meaning since dogs are just as likely to end up on the dinner table as underneath it.
Everybody is looking for new ways to make money, and the private corporations that run the penitentiary system come up with a brilliant idea. Why not use all those disposable lowlife criminals to stage gladiatorial-style entertainment to be broadcast online for the masses? Death Race is born.
Terminal Island's cold-as-ice Warden Hennessey runs the mortality minded show, which comes complete with super-powered cars, hyper-destructive weaponry and—since five victories means they're set free—grizzled drivers willing to kill for a win. There's only one problem for Hennessey: The lead-foot brutes she picks keep dying. And the viewers want a champion.
So she creates something the bloodthirsty crowds can really root for: Frankenstein—an unkillable driver reportedly so scarred that he has to wear a mask. He may not always win, but he never dies.
Well, actually he does, but she just gives the mask to someone else.
And that's where former racer Jensen Ames comes in. Falsely convicted for the murder of his wife, Jensen is handed the mask and a promise of possible freedom. Knowing he's being set up, Jensen refuses until the fate of his infant daughter is used as leverage. Then he agrees to be Hennessey's Frankenstein. But she may be sorry she created this monster.
Jensen is a heavily tattooed, rough-and-tumble kind of guy who won't back down from a fight and is willing to kill if necessary. But the one part of his life that gives him a "chance at something better" is his beloved wife and baby daughter. He loves them fiercely, and when his wife is murdered, he readily faces death to protect and, hopefully, reclaim his child. He says, "I love her as much as anyone in this life possibly could and in the end that's all that matters."
Early on, Jensen laments his failings to his wife, and she embraces him saying, "You're a good man, and it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks."
Warden Hennessey says, "I'm more than lucky, I'm blessed. Sometimes it's like the right hand of God is on me." One of the Death Race drivers, Machine Gun Joe, reads a Bible while in his prison cell. He then removes a razor blade taped to one of the book's pages and begins to cut his face, saying, "Thou shalt not kill."
Jensen is shown shirtless on several occasions and naked once (seen from the side and back) in the prison showers. He and his wife embrace and kiss. He lifts her up to sit on the kitchen countertop, but their path toward sex is blocked by their baby's cry from another room.
One of Jensen's inmate mechanics makes crude remarks about a fellow driver's homosexuality, one time calling him an "angry homo." A group of women prisoners are bussed in to ride as co-pilot/navigators for the Death Racers. They must be from a prison made up of only ex-Maxim models, however, since all of them are dressed in provocative, low-cut and midriff-baring outfits. When the ladies step off their bus the camera unabashedly takes time to ogle their various curves. It also shows us male inmates cupping their crotches, thrusting their hips and making catcalls.
Let me see ... what's the name of this movie again? Oh, Death Race. The heavily armored hunks of growling metal that make the races possible come equipped with so many implements of destruction you'd think the military would want to trade in its assault vehicles for a few of these cars. Hood-mounted machine guns fire 4,000 rounds per minute. And onboard RPGs are of the armor-piercing variety. They can also lay down crash-inducing oil slicks, tire-blowing spikes and streams of burning napalm. A converted tanker truck, the Dreadnaught, enters the track at one point, looking like a mix between a Road Warrior battlewagon and a tank. This vehicle carries several 50-caliber machine guns, antiaircraft weapons and flamethrowers.
The weapons are powered up as the drivers roll over manhole cover-like medallions on the track. One of these "buttons" initializes a "death head," which is a spiked platform that impales another racer's car. All this firepower and more is unleashed on the men and women in the race, predictably resulting in crushed, exploded, battered, riddled and pulverized flesh.
One death is particularly graphic. A driver has his vehicle pummeled and sent pinwheeling through the air. He crawls out of the crumpled car, severely bloodied, and calls out that he can't be killed. At that moment a large truck swings into view and gruesomely obliterates him as if he were nothing more than a water balloon. His blood and entrails splash across the vehicle's windows.
Other flinch-inducing deaths include a man being thrown from a quickly moving truck to hit a steel girder headfirst, a man getting incinerated by a point-blank cannon blast and an unfortunate co-pilot quickly bleeding out from large bullet wounds.
Jensen must also endure batterings and beatings outside of his car. Guards and inmates continually come at him with rods, chains, wrenches and food trays. After being knocked out on one occasion, Jensen awakes with a bloody knife in his hand and his bleeding wife next to him.
Crude or Profane Language
When Jensen is first brought before Hennessey at Terminal Island, the warden declares, "Foul language is an issue for me." But later, when things don't go her way, she blasts out a string of blazing profanities. All told, she and others cough up more than 35 f-words and 15 s-words. That total revs up to almost 100 when you add in "a--," "d--n," "h---," "b--ch" and "b--tard." Male and female body parts are crudely referenced, and a song repeats the n-word. God's and Jesus' names are both profaned (with God's being combined with "d--n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Machine Gun Joe smokes a cigar once and cigarettes on several occasions (always keeping a cig over his ear or in the brim of his cap). A mechanic lights up a cigarette. When a mill shuts down, one of the workers takes a deep swig from a bottle of alcohol. Jensen's wife gets a beer out of the fridge (but never opens it).
Other Negative Elements
Nearly two hours of vehicular rampaging glamorize and glorify crazy driving. During the closing credits, a disclaimer is posted warning viewers against fast and reckless driving, but, um, the pile-up's already happened and the damage is already done.
As mentioned, Hennessey manipulates Jensen by threatening the well-being of his infant daughter.
Death Race is the next step in Hollywood's continual march toward finding the perfect blend between comic books, video games and moviemaking. And why shouldn't it be? This title has been all three. The 1974 campy-but-still-gratuitous exploitation pic Death Race 2000 has seen life as a movie, comic book and a controversial video game.
This 2008 reimagining of those B-grade creations comes off like a blending of Sin City comics, Mad Max flicks and every smash-'em-up Burnout-style video game you can think of. That means there are as many explosions, sexed-up females, obscenities and caustic casualties as can be squeezed into 105 minutes of celluloid.
"I grew up with video games," director Paul W.S. Anderson (who's known for his films Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil) said in an interview with the online site Bloody-Disgusting. "So it's not surprising that's kind of had a big influence on me. Oliver Stone had Vietnam, I had PlayStation."
That admission doesn't surprise me in the least after seeing this pointless cinematic adrenaline shot that prompts moviegoers to cheer as people get slaughtered while ramming around in armored cars.