Death Race 2000 is one of those films that’s eluded me my whole life. I remember seeing a poster for it about a decade back in a burrito shop that decorated with retro timepieces. It’s tagline, “In the year 2000, hit and run driving is no longer a crime. It’s the NATIONAL SPORT!” glares out at like an alluring alarm. As is the case with many dystopian films about the year 2000, little of their warnings have come true. We have cell phones and short attention spans and sever ennui – but murder has not been sanctioned, nor American turned into the new Roman Coliseum.
However, much offered in Death Race 2000 seems apropos, especially during an era marked by heightened violence and our desensitization to it. The film’s stars, David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, have each been in far better movies. Honestly, you could have replaced them both with day players and the film would have had the same effect. It’s the blasé nature of this ‘sport’ – a cross country race between drivers with cars that have been turned into weapons who systematically run down pedestrians for ‘points’ – that drives the movie. Lives are taken with little thought. In fact, the production is filmed in such a way as to make these victims indeed seem like tokens to be collected, not souls with families or dreams.
Death Race, a doubtless inspiration for The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and countless other films, fails to make a strong statement due to its lifeless approach, even if it is littered with symbolism and social commentary throughout. There’s one driver whose car is painted with the Nazi insignia that is accepted as normal. There’s the American flag which bears an uncanny resemblance to Communist Russia. There’s the sports’ score tallying system, which is a clear stab at social castes. Women are worth more ‘points’ than men, teenagers more still, babies even more, with the elderly topping the charts. Foreigners and people of color aren’t mentioned, but do they need to be? As Stallone’s “Machine Gun Joe Viterbo” punches his female navigator in the face for fraternizing with the competition, I can only imagine how this new America views anyone non White male.
The basic problem with Death Race, besides its shallow script, is the production value and story, which are nonexistent. Machine Gun Joe and ‘Frankenstein,’ played by Carradine, plow through the streets, run people over, gnaw at each others’ throats, etc., all while the camera’s breakneck pace doesn’t pause for exposition or emotion.
The race is announced by “Junior Bruce” (Don Steele), who has that same audacious charisma Stanley Tucci so obviously borrowed for his similar role in The Hunger Games. This film seems to relish the race, the violence, the art of the kill, but no one really basks in the deaths themselves. “A clean hit! A perfect hit! And no pain for the target. Too bad the guy was only thirty-eight; just two years older, he’d have been worth three times the points” narrates Bruce. But for all the bloodlust, testosterone, and deep anti-woman sentiment in this film, is no pain for the victim something its makers would relish?
There’s some side plotting, involving a group of rebels targeting some of the drivers, and even some half-baked coup d’états against the President (Sandy McCallum), that let us know some individuals are against the totalitarian regime… but even these are handled in an off the cuff and sarcastic fashion. The film also over explains all its finer points – points so obvious one wonders why the filmmakers have such distrust in their audience. Without spoiling the ending, as Junior remarks that the race must go on because “oh, sure it’s violent, but that’s who we are as Americans,” the film’s audience may very well be shaking their heads or mumbling to themselves, “okay, okay, we get it.”
It’s nearly impossible to discuss the acting here. Carradine, who was wonderful in Kill Bill Vol. 2, and had an extensive career with Kung Fu pictures, is thoroughly wasted on a film that doesn’t need him at all. He’s masked in costume for most of the run-time in between trying to guess the resistance’s moves and sneering at his navigator who he suspects may be a spy. Likewise Stallone – who wrote and starred in the mesmerizing Rocky – is goofed out in a power suit and tie, wanting blood, mostly Frankenstein’s, and doesn’t have anything that resembles a piece of thoughtful dialogue the entire film. None of the players do; Death Race 2000 feels as though it was filmed without actors in mind, with only a story and an afterthought that it would be enough to carry it along.
The biggest failure of Death Race is that its message, which had the potential for depth and insight, is buried amidst a movie as uninspired as this. Like the Race itself, the film skirts relevance in favor of gore and its own insanity. It’s ending, truncated and terse, suffers from the same attention span as the film. For its portents of violence and desensitization, Death Race 2000 makes a fitting entry into our “1975 in Film” series. But as a dystopian film with a budget of only $300,000… well, I guess you get what you pay for.