Here at Loser City, we’re unabashed genre fans but even we recognize that action films can often be difficult to defend. Lucky for you, we’ve decided to look back at some of the best examples from the genre, analyzing what it is about these works specifically that allows them to succeed. Today, Christopher M. Jones examines Roger Corman’s vehicular homicide trashfest Death Race 2000, which he argues works because it expends little to no energy explaining or clarifying the status quo of its world.
Film professors and our nation’s most punchable teenagers had it right all along: action movies suck. They’re formulaic, most of the dialogue is scripted by orangutans, and the majority of them don’t even have the decency to be fun. For every two minutes of Jason Statham wrapping chains on his feet and kicking people into grease, there’s five minutes of Jason Statham grimacing at nothing while a foreign stereotype explains the film’s plot to him. For every three minutes of robots making each other explode, you are asked to suffer through five minutes of Shia LaBoeuf saying or doing anything. Who would watch a movie like this when we’ve invented an entirely new medium of action story in the form of the video game, where getting through the garbage no one enjoys is as simple as pushing a button?
I’m not going to say that action movies have failed to learn the lessons of grindhouse cinema’s 1970s golden age, because if we’re being honest with ourselves most of those movies sucked too. No, in truth even its contemporaries failed to achieve anything resembling the spectacle of joyous mayhem that is the mighty Death Race 2000.
In truth an essay is likely unnecessary to explain why this movie is so good, as nine characters are all it takes to sum up Death Race’s brilliance: “80 minutes.” This is a movie that does not waste your fucking time. There’s no one drawling out a nonsensical explanation to Tom Cruise about how alien blood lets you travel through time, there’s no Batman mumbling about how his power generator needs enough water to stay calm or whatever the fuck all that was about in Dark Knight Rises. In fact, there’s no exposition at all that takes longer than 45 seconds of the viewer’s time. Almost everything about this universe is explained by newscasters with silly hair shouting it as cars smash into each other. Anything that can’t be made clear without the visual aid of artillery fire, exposed breasts or bumpkins being crushed under combat vehicles is given at maximum a minute of screen time before we’re back in the thrall of it. In a perfect world, every violent movie would work exactly like this.
Death Race 2000 realizes that an action movie doesn’t need an incredible amount of non-emergent world building to make its intentions clear; that is to say, everything about this movie is the movie. There’s a race, it kills people, and it takes place in the year 2000. It’s elegant and engaging in a way modern action films don’t even try to be anymore. To put it in video game terms, think of a game like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that launches you straight into the game’s mechanics from the first moment and lets you learn its rules by yourself in a fun and comfortable environment, versus something like Assassin’s Creed II cutting all the wall running and throat slitting with shitty cut scenes, game-crashing glitches, bird watching and property haggling. This is Death Race 2000 compared to, like, any super hero movie.
When something about this world doesn’t make sense, someone who’s fun to look at yells about it until it does. What little we need to glean from the characters is taken from not what they say but the way in which they behave towards each other. This is not a film where a gripping machete fight in a claustrophobic bath house will be followed by a self-serious monologue about the horrors of poverty. This is a movie where a terse business conversation is interrupted by Sylvester Stallone throwing a pie at someone he hates, said pie-throwing being immediately followed by a fistfight in a garage, said fistfight being immediately followed by an old man being impaled by a car fender.
If I’m making this sound like a stupid movie, that’s because it is. Bad action movies aren’t bad because they’re stupid. Bad action movies are bad because they’re trying to say something they’re too stupid to communicate well. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film about superhumanly violent McRibs who spend more time moralizing about national security than they do hitting each other. What’s the appeal of this? Why do we ask that video games about chainsawing aliens have parts where you have to sneak around quietly? Why do we ask T.I. about the 2016 election circuit in interviews? Why do we want our action movies to feature complex concepts that end up getting boiled down to moronic, faulty parodies of themselves when the final product is released anyway?
I’m not even saying your action movie can’t be “about” something. Death Race 2000 has very obvious anti-Nixon themes, and if you want to be an awful dick you can even make the case that the film as a whole is about how even death is turning into a commodity of leisure. But it makes all that shit simple, loud and concurrent with all the car bombs and exploding heads. It doesn’t stop being awesome to allow two dipshits to talk about what’s going on in the movie; rather, the awesome things that are happening is the plot of the movie.
In an era of moviemaking where half the dialogue in a DC superhero movie is grumbled, CGI fantasias are considered acceptable substitutes for fight choreography and the only thing considered more important than a kick to the face is a supermodel dourly monologuing about why that kick needs to happen, Death Race 2000 is a refreshing blast from the past. It cuts to the point, it has the insatiable energy of a chimp on a jet-ski and it doesn’t slow down for a moment of its perfectly brief runtime. In closing I ask that we all remember one simple thing: WWRCD?(What Would Roger Corman Do?)
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.