In this 2008 film, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) finds himself in prison, forced to compete in the Death Race, a brutal three-day closed-course pay-per-view event. The race features armored cars with machine guns, flamethrowers, missiles, oil slicks, smokescreens and everything else a group of prison thug grease-monkeys can think to attach to a vehicle...A much darker and edgier film than the original Death Race 2000, which was more of a grisly comedy. The 2008 version did away with everything in the original except the theme of a killer car race, the names of the two champions (Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe) and the fact that Frankenstein was not the original, but another driver in the same mask. As a quick tribute, David Carradine, who was Frankenstein in the old film, voiced "Old Frank" in this one (for a couple of lines).A Direct-to-Video prequel was released in 2010, and a DTV sequel to the prequel was released in 2013. The prequels follow Carl "Luke" Lucas (Luke Goss), a bookie and bank robber who becomes Death Race's first champion and the original Frankenstein.
This film contains examples of:
The Alcatraz: Terminal Island. Escape isn't even dreamed of; even if you're a Death Racer, there are electric killswitches on the cars and guns, the guard towers are all fortified and have bigger arms than the cars, and, of course, it's an island — only way in or out is the long bridge that connects it to the mainland.
Kalahari Prison in the third movie. As one of the guards puts it, "You try to escape, the desert will kill you before we do!" Lucas, Katrina, and Goldberg manage to escape by the end of the movie, though they don't contend with the desert.
Angsty Surviving Twin: Joker's navigator in the third movie is one of a pair of serial killer twins. Her sister dies in her arms during the "Navigator Wars" competition, and she's very brooding and antisocial afterwards.
Backseat Driver: Joker's navigator in 3 is constantly bossing him around and criticizing his driving.
Bad Ass: Frankenstein, Machine Gun Joe, and even the Warden qualifies; she walks through the prison yard unarmed and remains untouched. The other drivers would be... if they lasted longer. 14K becomes one in the prequels, he's also the last of the other Drivers to die.
Badass Bookworm: Lists is a subdued version, he manages to save Jensen from Pachenko though he is quickly overpowered. He manages to get a few moments in the sequel as well.
The Bait: Case is this in the end, to allow Jensen to escape as amends to the old Frankenstein.
Batman Gambit: The Warden, while clearly in control, walks a very dangerous line. If Frankenstein wins, she is rid of Machine Gun Joe, activates the bomb, and finds herself a new Frank. If Joe wins, she is rid of Jensen, finds herself a new Frank, and disposes of Joe during his fifth race. If Frankenstein agrees to stay on board after his fifth win, she's guaranteed a long and continuous payday. One thing prevents it from being a Xanatos Gambit. The fail condition? If Jensen reveals her "dirty little secret" to anyone. That gave him an incredible amount of power that he ultimately decided not to use, and instead escaped and had her blown sky high.
Big Badass Rig: The Dreadnought. Joker and Nero drive absolutely massive trucks in 3, with a tank turret and an Anti-Air cannon as their respective weapons.
Bilingual Bonus: 14K. Especially his dying words (in English, translated with an equivalent Mandarin phrase in the subtitles).
Boss Subtitles: Used to introduce the significant drivers in every movie. In the second movie, even the Red Shirt drivers get their own cool intros. In the third movie they even do it to 14k, despite the fact that he's the only driver in all three movies.
Darkest Africa: The setting of the third movie, with the inmates residing at a prison in the Kalahari desert. The prisoners work in mines and the guards keep hyenas as guard dogs. During the races, local bandits even fulfill the classic "angry/savage natives" role.
Interestingly, it was shot on location, and Satana, the guards, and all of the new drivers are played by local talent.
Description Porn: Nearly everything Lists describes gets this treatment, such as the RPG-7s on Machine Gun Joe's truck and the other drivers.
Dirty Business: Case is in prison because she killed a good cop... good cop, lousy husband that is.
The Dog Bites Back: In the third movie, Niles York's put-upon assistant Prudence keeps her mouth shut when a burned York is mistaken for Frankenstein and sent to Terminal Island. And his mistreated lover Satana organized the whole thing.
Domestic Abuser: Case implies her husband was one, leading her to kill him. Jensen is framed as one, and Coach mentions at one point that he's met "his share" of them.
More than a hint of Slipknot too – mask combined with a one-piece racing/boiler suit.
Driver Faces Passenger: Jensen can spend an awful long time looking at Case when they're talking for such a treacherous track and its deadly drivers.
Dystopia: High crime and unemployment rates, and a high-rated television program is people murdering each other.
Easily Forgiven: Jensen coerces Case into confessing her sabotage of the races, and does absolutely nothing about it despite her having actively attempted to ruin his reunion with his daughter and accidentally getting his predecessor killed. Didn't even say a word. Possibly Justified in that she was doing exactly what everybody else was doing: trying to get her freedom. And he needed her for the rest of the race.
Eating the Eye Candy: Case mentions that Jensen looks better than the old Frank. Also played straight with several men scoping out the navigators, including Gunner and Lists.
At one point in the third movie, Lists stares as if mesmerized at Katrina's cleavage.
Eureka Moment: September Jones has one when she sees Lucas driving a car around the prison yard; that's where she got the idea of Death Race.
Lucas has one in the third movie when Psycho asks if he's the first Frankenstein, and suggests that "Frankenstein" is a role that anyone could play. This gives him the idea of setting up Niles York to be mistaken for Frankenstein.
Even Evil Has Standards: Pachenko pretends to be this; he tells the prisoners in the chow hall that Jensen was a wife-killer and a "kiddie rapist." This from an Aryan White Supremacist and mass murderer, who killed Jensen's wife on the Warden's orders.
In the third movie, everyone is really creeped out by Psycho, who makes everything uncomfortably sexual. And it's implied he's in prison for sex crimes in the first place.
Explosive Leash: How do you keep the prisoners from using their crazy cars to escape? Rig them to explode if they try! In the third movie the race has no boundaries, but straying off the intended course gets you an up-close and personal encounter with a heatseaking missile.
Faking the Dead: Lucas' death is faked by September Jones in the second movie, to set him up as Frankenstein and assert control over him. In the third movie, Lucas fakes the deaths of Goldberg, Katrina, and Niles York as part of his escape plot.
False Reassurance: Hennessey gives Frankenstein signed release papers, telling him all he he has to do now is survive and win. She never mentions she's changed the rules by planting a bomb or messing with the track, as she doesn't intend for him to do either.
Fanservice: The reason Case and all of the other female navigators are brought in. The third movie has a huge melee between female convicts to decide who gets to be a navigator, and it's made of this — resident pervert Psycho is panting and wheezing throughout the event. The third movie also has the new producer Satana, who loves tight, revealing clothes.
Frameup: Jensen didn't kill his wife; Hennessey had Pachenko do it for her so she could get Jensen to be Death Race's new star.
Hoist by His Own Petard: Some of the ways the show tries to off their competitors tend to backfire, or take out the other ways it tries to off them. The tanker-truck behemoth is taken out by a Death Head option placed to take out the competitors and the Warden gets killed by the explosive she tried to kill Frankenstein with.
I Choose to Stay: Lists when the team escaped in 3. He had been institutionalized, being more comfortable in prison society than that of a free man. Which is why he was in Death Race 1.
Informed Ability: The other drivers are supposed to be supreme Bad Asses, with five kills or more apiece on the track which means they had to have at least survived more than one race. They're offed quickly enough.
In Name Only: Apart from the fact that it features characters named "Frankenstein" and "Machine Gun Joe" in a race that combines Blood Sport with Car Fu.
Last Name Basis: Hennessey has a first name (all we know is that it starts with 'C'), but everyone calls her "Ma'am" or by her last name.
Last of His Kind: It's joked that Goldberg is "the last Mexican Jew", and that he "killed all the rest."
Legacy Immortality: Up to a certain point. The "Frankenstein" identity has been held by several convicts over the course of Death Race, with replacements coming in every time one of them dies. In the third movie, Psycho incorrectly assumes that this has already been happening for some time, and inadvertently gives Lucas the idea of replacing Frankenstein in the first place.
Ludicrous Gibs: Pretty Boy meets his end when he's blown up by a heatseeking missile. He wasn't in his car at the time, so you see bits of him flying well offscreen and easily a hundred feet into the air.
Man on Fire: Colt. Psycho dies from fire in the third movie, ironically inches away from a lake.
Mauve Shirt: Travis Colt turns out to be this. A little more attention is paid to him in the promos, and it's mentioned he's a record-holding ex-NASCAR driver which makes him "technically the best" out of the group. They set him up to be a long-runner, and he gets napalmed in the first race. 14K and Grimm also fall under this trope.
Meaningful Name: Jensen Ames, like the car (Jensen Interceptor). Also, Hector Grimm, who of course takes up the moniker of "Grimm Reaper."
Merchandise-Driven: In-universe, Death Race is this. According to York, Weyland makes around 8 million dollars a week on Frankenstein merchandise alone. As York points out, even though Frankenstein is one race away from freedom, he can't afford to just let him go.
Men Are the Expendable Gender: The precise reason why Machine Gun Joe gets male navigators. Also played straight with the drivers. The women are used as body fodder just as much as the men, but it's only fully averted when 14K's navigator dies up close. The rest of the girls get a Gory Discretion Shot.
In-universe, only Frankenstein's pit crew seem to play this trope straight, as theirs is the only car shown to be equipped with an ejector seat for its navigator.
In the third movie, Psycho's navigator Amber is the only survivor of the Death Race outside of Frankenstein, 14K, and their navigators and pit crews. Granted, it's also the only movie with a female driver, Olga, who also has a female navigator.
Mission Control: This is Coach, Goldberg, and Lists' function for Frankenstein.
Mr. Vice Guy: Jensen, who realizes that he's not a perfect person and therefore not a perfect father, but he loves his daughter and he's not going to let go of his "chance at something else, something better." He also genuinely loved his wife.
Ms. Fanservice: Case in the first movie, September Jones and Katrina in the second, and Satana, Katrina, and Amber in the third.
Neck Snap: Happens to Pachenko. Lucas finishes off two attackers this way in very quick succession in the Kalahari mine fight.
Only Known by Their Nickname: 14K, Pachenko, Lists, Gunner, and Coach. Extends to most of the drivers in the second and third movies, namely Sheik, Apache, Scarface, Hillbilly, Razor, Psycho, Joker, and Pretty Boy.
Outside Ride: Apache does this during the first race of the second movie. He has his navigator take the wheel as he climbs to the roof of his car, leaps onto another car, and stabs its driver in the neck. He then hops back onto, and in, his own car.
Power-Up: A rare non-videogame example. The cars' weapons are initially locked and must be activated by running over magnetically-active pads with simple symbols: sword for offensive, shield for defensive and such. But the skull pads activate a Booby Trap.
The second and third movies both have cage fights where fighters step on sword panels to get weapons, as well.
The third movie switches it up — there are no defensive power-ups or traps, and to get your weapons activated you have to drive through a gate rather than over a pad. And some of the gates can only be used once.
Precision F-Strike: The inmates are not shy about their language, but to hear it comes from Joan Allen?
Pretty Boy: One of the drivers in the third movie is nicknamed Pretty Boy, and looks the part. He's a coward who leaves his navigator for dead after his car flips.
Prop Recycling: In the second movie, most of the cars from the first are re-used, though in many cases they have different weapons mounted on them. Joker and Nero's trucks in the third movie are custom jobs left over from Fast Five.
Proud Warrior Race Guy: 14K is described as one in the second movie, following a code of honor alien to most of the characters.
The Quiet One: Frankenstein doesn't talk to the other drivers to preserve the mystique.
Recycledin Space: The Running Man with A Car Race, with other prisoners as the enemies instead of 'stalkers' - at first. In the second race, the Dreadnought comes out, which is basically the equivalent of the entire stalker stable in one chassis.
Red Shirt: Carson and Riggins, neither of whom actually appear except to be killed by the Dreadnought. They're not even mentioned when the team tells Jensen about the opposition. Siad is also one of these, but he at least gets a few seconds on screen.
Pretty much all of Machine Gun Joe's navigators. Lampshaded by Ames' pit crew when they say that Joe had lost so many female navigators, it squicked out even Death Race's target audience and they started giving him male navigators instead. One poor bastard is Genre Savvy enough about it that he had to be forced into Joe's truck kicking and screaming.
Fury and Tazmanian Devil in the third movie, the only racers who have neither speaking lines or Boss Subtitles. Jackal is killed trying to escape before the race even starts.
Retcon: A few things in the prequels seem to retcon stuff mentioned in the first movie. For instance, Hennessey claims she invented Death Race in the first movie; in 2, September Jones comes up with the "Death Race" concept, and later remarks that Terminal Island's new warden, Hennessey, would probably take credit for the whole thing if she weren't around.
Running Gag: Joe's navigators and their grisly demises. The audience knows something is up towards the end when his newest navigator is happy to be there, as if he hasn't been paying attention to what's going on, before the final reveal.
Scary Black Man: Machine Gun Joe. Inmates are terrified of him. Weyland in the prequels, by virtue of being played by the hulking Ving Rhames. Big Bill in 2, the most dangerous fighter in Death Match.
Left the Background Music On: Early in the last race of the third movie, a cool rap song starts playing. Then Psycho tells his navigator to change the station, and as soon as she does, the background music is replaced with a driving techno track.
Hennessey: "Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk."
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Lucas in the prequels is this to Jensen. Doesn't make sense for Jensen (and thus Jason Statham) to be in a prequel? Just get a different white British guy with a shaved head and Perma Stubble. There's a lot of key character differences, but it can't be a coincidence that they look and sound similar. Similarly, Katrina is the substitute Case
Take a Third Option: Jensen and Machine Gun Joe team up and escape rather than try to kill each other.
In the third movie, Lucas and Satana work together on an elaborate escape that also functions as a revenge plot against the power-mad Niles York, rather than keep playing by York's rules.
Tank Goodness: It's not technically a tank, but Joker's massive truck in the third movie has a tank turret as its weapon. The gun extends through the cab, which obviously means the turret can't be rotated.
Throw It In: One of the crashes staged for the film unexpectedly sent the empty stunt car much higher than intended, so it hung up on top of a wall rather than smashed into it. The resulting footage looked so cool that the filmmakers went back and equipped one of the other racers' vehicles with a rocket launcher suitable for blowing rival drivers sky-high, purely so they could justify using the clip.
Twenty Minutes into the Future: The film is set in 2012, and was made in 2008. By the third movie, which is a prequel, this is reversed — it was made in 2012, released in early 2013, and set a year or two before the first one.
The Unmasking: Luke loses his Frankenstein mask during a prison brawl when he first arrives at Kalahari in the third movie. This reveals his identity to his pit crew and navigator, who thought him dead after the events of the second movie. They remain bitter about being lied to until just about halfway through the film.
What Could Have Been: In 2000, the first rumors mentioned a sequel to Death Race 2000 titled Death Race 3000, set in the far future and featuring cars that could split in two and rejoin, transform, and even become invisible.
Wrench Wench: The female navigators are all brought in to help run the cars. Played straight with Case, who wields an actual wrench to fix to guns at one point.
You Have Failed Me: Machine Gun Joe is shown to play this straight with all his male navigators.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: When one of Joe's navigators incorrectly identifies a deactivated Sword panel as being lit, Joe angrily tells him to get out of the car and then proceeds to kick him out and into steel railing.