Nathan Adams of Filmschoolrejects has started a cool new column which pits a film with undeserved love against an unfortunately ignored or ridiculed one. I'm making a similar blog, and by similar I mean the exact same. :)
Few genres are more entertaining than carsploitation—huge, violent, absurd spectacles with automobile v. automobile showdowns. The highest grossing one of them all is the well-reviewed and highly adored Fast Five. Sadly, it is not a good representation of the genre. I nominate Death Race to take its place.
There are a lot of problems with the big-budget sequel Fast Five. For starters—and this is the biggy—it seems way to much like an affirmation for organized crimes. The movie opens with the two heroes of the story making a living now that they are outlaws. What exactly made them outlaws? Driving cars through crowded city streets in top-speed races for an underground gambling corporation. No, they weren’t framed. No, they didn’t do it to protect the ones they love. They just did it for the money, risking the lives of those around them while funding huge organized crime rings such as the Yakuza and Mexican drug cartels (that isn’t hypothesis by the way: It is in the previous films).
Now it ruins a blockbuster to obsess on logic. But that doesn’t mean we must totally twist around our way of thinking to excuse something that is completely against every morals our society has. How exactly can viewers justify the actions of these heroes?
In Fast Five opener, these outlaws—led by Vin Diesel and Paul Walker—are hiding in Rio, Brazil where they make a deal to steal cars claimed by the CIA because they were being used to smuggle drugs (why exactly the CIA has a bunch of smugglers cars in the middle of Rio is not answered). It’s not really wrong, since these aren’t individuals’ cars—unless you remember that they would be sold to pay for government programs such as social security or building new schools. Well, at least it’s victimless. Well it starts out that way. The outlaws make a deal to steal the car with a vicious Brazilian gang (they say they will split the profits, though it implied they plan to steal it all). This goes about as well as one would expect—Vin Diesel’s girlfriend drives off with the first of the stolen cars, and the gangsters catch on. They start firing guns and kill a US fed and then put a price on the head of our so-called heroes.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is then brought in to track them down, and he doesn’t listen to the outlaws when they explain it isn’t there fault since they didn’t plan on shooting anyone. Apparently sneaking a bunch of convicted felons onto government propery, stealing a ton of government cars, and then inciting a duel by double crossing one’s partners is in no way a situation one could reasonably expect could end up with someone getting killed.
The movie continues like that with the outlaws starting a heist that destroys several miles of urban storefronts and presumably kills dozens of innocent bystanders. The problem with this is two-fold: First, it is pretty hard to root for the protagonists if one thinks about the story; Second, it is a pretty blatant glorification of South and Central American organized crime. Every year, cops trained and armed by the US in Mexico and Columbia bravely die fighting to rid their country of the drug cartels which steal, torture, and terrorize entire regions of the world (and poison the US with a steady supply of ballistics and cocaine). There are fun popcorn flicks that you don’t think about that hard and then there are movies where you must terminate your capacity to think.
A few years before Fast Five there was Death Race. It flopped at the box office, though a movie like this is most likely to make its cash on DVD and cable television anyway. Critically, it fared better—half the critics really liked it, half couldn’t stand it (there was no middle ground). Still, no amount of fact-bending can say it’s $75 million global total and 43 Metacritic score can stand up to Fast Five’s might. This is a pity. Death Race proves big, stupid carsplotiation flicks can be clever and fun.
Death Race takes place in a not-so-distant dystopian future where an economic crash caused the American prison system to be privatized and the prisoners are offered freedom if they compete in hugely popular televised gladiatorial combat. You would think there would be very few volunteers, but that is because you didn’t know that in this future prison sentences are insanely long and prisons are insanely dangerous (because apparently having more prisoners is more profitable). These gladiatorial combats have grown increasingly elaborate, but the most popular of all is the Death Race. This is done with bulky armored trucks loaded with multiple armories of vicious tools of destruction that make Ben-Hurr’s chariots seem like Barbie dream cars. The goal is to cross the finish line first—in the third round. The only way to be eliminated in the first and second rounds is to never cross the finish line, so those two are more like demolition derbies. It’s like the Hunger Games, but you don’t have to feel guilty when someone dies because they are all criminal adults!
Fast Five had a car scene where the car has stilts, and there was the scene with the vault attached to a car, but for the most part that movie just has ordinary cars. Death Race has super-hero cars. There are only so many ways you can kill someone with a regular car, but if you attach rocket launchers, spikes, chains, plows, heat-seeking missiles, elector seats, and detachable walls your car chases will never grow old. So just on sheer coolness level, Death Race is a few thousand levels above Fast Five.
Also, there is very little objectionable about Death Race. The protagonist has been framed and is racing so he can be reunited with his infant daughter. Nothing bad about that motive. And while the violence is bloody, it is in such a ridiculous manner that it really shouldn’t be considered more graphic than Fast Five’s.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat and most of the Resident Evil films) goes overboard with the dark coloring in the cinematography, but he finds the perfect match of shakycam, slow-mo, and good old fashioned regular-speed steadycam (is “steadycam” a word?); he also makes sure to keep things intense while maintaining a light and silly atmosphere (which, for better or for worse, dumbs down the heavy-handed political commentary of Death Race 2000, which Death Race is a remake of). The characters are far more interesting than in Fast Five—the hero teams up with a crew of misfits including an autistic savant (Fred Koehler) and a guy who doesn’t flinch when cars fire weapons at him but is too nervous to reenter the real world even though he has long since served his time (played perfectly by Ian McShane). Natalie Martinez has fun as the protagonist’s love interest, Tyrese Gibson and Max Ryan make for intimidating rival drivers, and three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen plays the icy cold business-minded prison chairman who is the real villain. Jason Statham is an icon of B-movies, but he has A-list skills: As Death Race’s leading man he is far more interesting than anyone in Fast Five.
Forget Fast Five. Rent Death Race today!