13 January 2009

Movie review: Death Race

Death Race (2008)
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez

Jason Statham looks like the sort of man who could actually walk the streets, inconspicuous, then turn around and snap your neck at a moment’s notice. That makes him one of the more realistic action heroes to appear in a time when the old-style muscley hero in the Schwarzenegger-Stallone mold has largely disappeared. Statham is newest of an old breed, but the fellow can actually act and doesn't seem like an entity genetically groomed in a Hollywood hit factory. He brings an edge even to the lamer material he selects, like Crank, Transporter 3, and Death Race.

Death Race is nominally a re-make of the low-budget 1975 exploitation film Death Race 2000, produced by the king of cheap exploitive schlock, Roger Corman. Corman serves as executive producer on this movie, which probably has a budget twenty times the size of anything else he ever worked on. The original film has drive-in movie charm. The re-make is standard mid-level, late-summer action fare, which is the particular niche of writer/director Paul W. S. “not-to-be-confused-with-the-other-one” Anderson.

Anderson has changed the premise of Death Race 2000 from a cross-country gladiatorial sport to an arena-based cars vs. cars race, with elements of videogames tossed in (drivers can run over lit-circles to gain “power-ups”). Also borrowing from Escape from New York (which inspires the title-card opening as well), the story takes place in a prison-based world, where the inmates of Terminal Island participate in auto-duels to-the-death for the amusement of millions of pay-per-view watchers around the globe. The movie has almost zero interest in social satire, so don’t expect to see much about this viewer fascination with death aside from mentions of how many viewers have signed up and the graphics advertising it. It’s strange that anyone has money to spend on the pay-per-view, considering the enormous spike in unemployment mentioned in the opening titles. (The titles claimed this happened in 2012, off by about four years.)

Statham plays Jensen Ames, former racer and now a laid-off worker. He gets framed for his wife’s murder and sent to Terminal Island. His wife’s actual killer gives him a specific hand-sign before Jensen falls unconscious, a sure sign that Jensen will eventually recognize him again. Strangely, this plot element gets resolved in the middle of the movie, leaving Jensen to vent the rest of his wrath against Terminal Island’s warden and mogul of the Death Race sport, Hennessy (Joan Allen, collecting a paycheck, but earning it).

Hennessy wants Jensen to replace “Frankenstein,” a popular driver whose face remains hidden under a Jason Voorhees-like mask. The real Frankenstein is dead in the noisy prologue, and Hennessy offers Jensen his freedom if he wins one more race posing under the mask. The movie then follows the three stages of the race, as Jensen and his sexy co-pilot Case (Natalie Martinez) try to beat the thuggish other racers, with help from master mechanic and scene-stealer Coach (Brit actor Ian McShane, best known from the mystery series Lovejoy).

The movie starts on a prologue chase, and I wished modern action filmmakers would ease off the pedal in throwing me into an action scene as soon as possible. Why not some build-up? Quantum of Solace is one of the worst examples of this abrupt and senseless overkill at the beginning. Death Race, in only a few minutes, already shows most of its devices, and that means Stage One of Jensen’s race is stale. And, of course, it’s edited with a cuisinart. Stage Two is the best, since some more drama has built-up—Jensen has started to figure out the warden’s game—and it brings out the Dreadnought, a super-tanker fortress that immediately calls to mind “Mega-Weapon” from The Warrior of the Lost World, a classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

Death Race is dumb, but it isn’t rotten. It seems about standard for Paul W. S. Anderson, who never promises you more than competent science-fiction goods, and usually delivers them. I’ll even admit that I like AVP: Alien vs. Predator—especially after suffering through AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. I cut Anderson’s some slack; he’s not Joel Schumacher, and he’s not Uwe Boll, and on an unambitious actioner like a re-make of a Corman film, he was the best choice.

But you want to know a really damning fact? I liked this movie more than Speed Racer. A lot more.