Monday, March 24, 2014

Death Race (2008), Death Race 2 (2011), Death Race 3 (2013) and the Symbolic Nature of Frankenstein

This week is a special week for the Sunday blog post about a random movie that many could consider a bad movie.  This week isn’t just a one movie week.  I have three movies that I’m going to write about.  This week, I am covering Death Race, Death Race 2, and Death Race: Inferno.  Not included in this is Death Race 2000.  I am only dealing with the remake, and its subsequent series of movies.

In 2008, Paul WS Anderson re-imagined Death Race 2000 as a prison set, dystopian future, racing movie.  The idea behind it was that prisons are run for profit and one of the ways to create profit was to televise a possibly fatal race between convicts.  This was where the title Death Race came into play.  The races have characters for the viewer to latch onto.  There is violence and death involved.  It’s exciting for the viewer, but does it make an exciting movie?  That’s a tough question to answer and all comes down to the specific tastes of the person watching the movie.

The prison profit theme runs throughout the entire series as it sets up the premise of the movies.  Each movie involves races within the prison but also uses this behind-the-scenes corporation setting to highlight the greed of the prison system.  It gives an interesting twist to the simplistic “race to the death” storyline that the movies seem like.  Don’t misinterpret this, though.  The movies are very much highlighting the action on the track.  This is the main focus, but corporate greed also has a large influence over the story.  This is especially apparent when it comes to the story of the main racing figure, Frankenstein.
Now, before I go any further, I’d like to preface the rest of this by saying that there will be spoilers for the Death Race series.  If you do not want to be spoiled on the series, watch the movies then come back to my review sort of thing later.  The movies are entertaining enough that you shouldn’t feel as though they are a complete waste of time.

Aside from the story being as much about the races as it is about the profitability of televising them, the point that hits this home the most is the use of the Frankenstein costume.  It is made abundantly clear in the Death Race that the Frankenstein racing character can be played by anyone.  He is simply a man behind a mask.  Anybody could be behind that mask.  Frankenstein is a legend that can live beyond the convict chosen to play him.  This comes into play very early as Jason Statham’s character Jensen Ames is only the newest racer in a long line of racers to be behind the mask.  In the opening scene of the movie, the original Frankenstein dies.  Jensen Ames is framed for murder and forced into racing for the prison simply because he was a great racer at one time in his life.  A better racer means a better race and that means better ratings.  This can only lead to more profit.  It also helps that this great racer can hide behind a mask and become one of the favourite characters in Death Race history.

This idea of Frankenstein being a figure rather than a specific person in order to achieve more profit is only further solidified through the two direct-to-video sequels, Death Race 2 and Death Race: Inferno.  Death Race 2 tells the story of the original Frankenstein and how he became Frankenstein.  Luke Goss stars as Carl Lucas, a getaway driver who is caught after a bank heist gone wrong.  Though the acting in Death Race 2 isn’t on the same level as the previous film, it hits the capitalism point better.  Instead of simply brushing over how the idea of the races came to be, this movie fleshes out the inception of the prison system getting to that point.  It taps into the societal interest in violence and death, as well as the exploitation of people for higher profit.  This movie expands on this idea in a way that Death Race did not.  It also leads Carl Lucas down the path that caused him to become Frankenstein.  In Death Race: Inferno, the character of Frankenstein exists.  Carl Lucas is still Frankenstein.  What the third installment in the series brings to the table is the idea of franchise expansion and what it brings in terms of monetary gain.  Though this is much more focused on character relationships than the second film, it still brings up some interesting ideas when it comes to capitalism.

Death Race: Inferno better exemplifies the concept of Frankenstein being a symbol than the second film.  There are many instances throughout the story in which Carl Lucas is threatened by the man running the race and told that he could be killed and replaced easily, with Frankenstein coming out alive from a fatal accident to help solidify the mythology of the character.  This is only further backed up by the final twist in the film being the fact that someone else is now taking the place of Carl Lucas as Frankenstein following a seemingly fatal accident.
In the end, all of this talk about the figure that Frankenstein is all ties into the money-making ways of the entire system.  The reason that the character is built up is due to the viewers who like to watch him and the ratings created from them watching the races.  Whether the person in charge is Joan Allen’s Hennessey, Lauren Cohan’s September Jones, or Dougray Scott’s Niles York, they are in it for the money.  They do not care about anyone who tries to get in their way.  It’s all about making money to them, and the fans’ reaction to Frankenstein is a big factor in getting the ratings and money that they desire.

There have been other movies that have covered the same ground as the Death Race movies in a better way.  There is no denying that.  However, the Death Race series is interesting in how it brought those aspects to the forefront, while mixing them with the bloody, explosive action of prison inmates racing for their lives.  The thought that was put into the two sequels elevates them to be a little bit better than most direct-to-video movies.  They deserve praise for that.

There are a few notes that I would like to make:
  • Two actors were featured in all three Death Race movies.  These actors were Robin Shou, and Fred Koehler.
  • Danny Trejo, Luke Goss, Ving Rhames, Tanit Phoenix, Tanya van Graan, Michael Dube, Quentin Chong, and Louis Joubert were in both Death Race 2 and Death Race: Inferno.
  • Lauren Cohan, Chase Armitrage, and Michael Solomon were in Death Race 2, and had archive footage from that movie shown in Death Race: Inferno.
  • If you have any suggestions for future movies in the Sunday "Bad" Movies posts, feel free to leave a comment or message me on Twitter.

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