There are hard jobs and then there are HARD jobs. I’m certainly no one to complain, as I’m aware that while I sit in front of my computer, there are folks working as first responders, protecting our freedoms by serving in the military, and breaking their backs in the fields harvesting the food we eat.
Nonetheless, you’ll forgive me if I tell you that keeping things fresh month after month in a column like this is no easy task.
Occasionally, I get into a rut, concerned that they’ve been following too similar a vein of late, or that my take on things has become myopic or otherwise lacking in diversity. It’s then that I sometimes feel the urgent need to shake things up a little.
Seeing as how my last few iterations of Rob’s Movie Muscle have focused on some fairly straight-up muscle cars, I tried to figure out what I could cover this time that would push the envelope in some fashion.
I struggled for several days, until everybody’s favorite Street Muscle Magazine editor, Vinny Costa, came up with the suggestion that I cover the decidedly un-straight-up Ford Mustang from the dystopian action flick Death Race.
As it turned out, it was exactly what I needed to breathe some new air into things. So without further delay, let’s dive in and have a look!
Death Race was a 2008 reboot of the 1975 cult film Death Race 2000 that starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. The version that we are concerned with here was produced by Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media, Cruise/Wagner Productions, H2S2 Filmproduktionsgesellschaft, and Scion Films, and was distributed theatrically in the States by Universal.
The movie was written and helmed by seasoned genre picture writer/director, Paul W.S. Anderson, who had previously achieved success with such films as Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Event Horizon, and Alien vs. Predator.
Starring in the film is Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Jason Clarke, and Natalie Martinez.
Death Race is set in a 2012 in which the U.S. economy has collapsed, thus sparking rampant crime and the creation of privatized prisons to handle the staggering number of convicted criminals.
Industrial steel worker and former race car driver, Jensen Ames (Statham) is framed for the murder of his young wife and sent to Terminal Island prison. The warden, Claire Hennessey (Allen), earns massive profits from hosting Death Race, an internet broadcast, vehicular combat racing series.
Hennessey enlists Ames in the race to impersonate Frankenstein, a fan-favorite driver who died in the hospital after injuries sustained in a recent race. By doing so, Ames is promised to be freed to raise his infant daughter should he win a certain number of races. Pitted against him will be a vile coterie of other inmate drivers.
Along with a team of mechanically-inclined cons, Ames modifies his race car with a variety of performance and weapons systems and does battle to the death on the Terminal Island race circuit.
Talk about a job worth complaining about…
If that sounds like a contrived, insipid, and hackneyed plot, well, that’s because it is. Just about every facet of the film is awful, from the acting to the dialogue, to the nausea-inducing shaky camerawork and choppy editing.
But none of that concerns us here, as our focus is solely on the cars in the movie and especially Ames’ racecar.
The cars used by Ames’ competitors include a 1980 Porsche 911, a 2006 Chrysler 300C, a 1972 Buick Riviera Boat Tail, a 1966 Buick Riviera GS, a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, a 1989 BMW 735i, a Dodge Ram 3500, and a 1989 Jaguar XJS.
All of the cars were heavily dressed in armor, machine guns, rockets, and other prop dressing accoutrements to the cost of roughly $250,000-$300,000 per car. It took production designer, Paul Austerberry, and a crew of over 70 mechanics, prop dressers, technicians, and fabricators approximately six weeks to put the cars together and have them be race-ready.
“We took a year to design the different cars,” director Anderson said in an interview, “and it was important to me. It was almost like I was casting cars like you would cast an ensemble movie. I wanted each car to be instantly recognizable so that if you just saw the silhouette you’d know exactly what it was.”
Anderson added, “I didn’t want too many old cars, I didn’t want too many modern cars. I wanted to have different silhouettes and different feels to them. And I think we succeeded in doing that, but it took a long, long time. And also we wanted to king of have the cars be an extension of the characters that were driving them as well, and that took a lot of time for refinement as well.”
While I understand completely the concept that the director was going for, I have to respectfully disagree with him that they succeeded in making each car instantly recognizable, as the insanely quick editing of the race sequences makes it very difficult to know which car you are looking at. But I digress…
Star, Jason Statham, recalled that the cars of the film were a huge lure to him.
“When I first saw the drawings that Paul [Anderson] gave to me in the first meeting we had… I was like… ‘These look unbelieveable.’ Cars with guns and ejector seats and napalm and smoke and oil slicks… Nitrous oxide injection, superchargers, it’s like everything you could ever imagine these cars had. I was like ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. When can I do the movie? When can I start?’”
No doubt, the biggest enticement for the actor would be the car he himself would pilot in the film. That car was a 2006 S197 Ford Mustang GT.
Originally slated to be a Dodge Challenger, Anderson changed his mind, believing the Mustang to be more recognizable.
Six cars in total were used for filming, including base cars that were chopped up and configured to enable tight-quarters interior shooting and close-ups. A Shelby GT500 that was summarily killed during shooting was parted out, and the engine was used for a later sequence of the convict mechanics working on it.
As for the high-speed driving stunts (kudos to director Anderson for insisting that all race sequences be performed practically with no CGI) Coyote-powered Mustang GTs did all the heavy lifting.
Those cars were sent off to Roush Performance to be modified, receiving a Ford Racing Performance supercharger upgrade in addition to other tweaks. This enabled the Mustangs to spin their tires for satisfying, smokey burnouts despite the added weight of all the faux armor (which was largely plastic, but still added considerable heft) and weaponry.
A Ford Racing exhaust system, Progress Technology adjustable coil over front struts, rear shocks, panhard bar and adjustable rear lower control arms were installed to aid the handling for the stunt drivers. A Brembo disc brake system was added to help stop the beasts.
Tough duty in the form of numerous stunt accidents resulted in the failure of components and required a constant stream of parts to be shipped from LA to the filming location in Montreal, Canada. Picture Car Coordinator, Dennis McCarthy, was quick to point out though that the ‘stangs were otherwise extremely reliable.
As far as the car’s aesthetics, which Anderson referred to as “wreck tech,” are concerned, one can tell that it is a Mustang GT primarily via the grille, which still features the production car logo and twin fog lights.
All other body panels were thoroughly modified, including a bespoke twin hood scoop, twin M134 7.62mm prop mini guns (laughably misidentified as 30mm Gatling cannons in dialogue), slats covering the driver’s portion of the windshield, doors hinged from the trailing edge, numerous scoops and body modifications added to the flanks, a louvered cover over the Mustang’s side and rear windows, and a massive armor plate covering the car’s entire rear. Interestingly, the car wears stock 18″ 2007 Ford Mustang Cobra wheels wrapped in Toyo Proxes T1R 255/45 ZR 18 and Toyo Proxes S/T 285/45 ZR 18 tires front and rear, instead of some modified zombie-looking rims.
Inside, the Mustang looks like a cross between that of Doc Brown’s DeLorean, Mad Max’s Interceptor, and an Apache attack helicopter’s cockpit. An imposing roll cage protects the occupants, and Kirkey aluminum racing seats, RCI 5-point harnesses, and a hodge-podge of switches, gauges wires, and controls festoon the crowded interior. A nice touch is the car’s 5-speed shifter which is a casting of a cobra’s head bearing its tongue and fangs.
At least three of the six Mustangs survived the production, with one sold by Universal to a private collector, one being sold at auction in 2018, and one residing at the Celebrity Car Museum in Branson, Missouri.
It’s good to know that Frankenstein’s whip rolls on. Until next time…