Director : Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenplay : Paul W.S. Anderson (based on the film Death Race 2000 produced by Roger Corman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Jason Statham (Jensen Ames), Joan Allen (Hennessey), Ian McShane (Coach), Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe), Natalie Martinez (Case), Max Ryan (Pachenko), Jason Clarke (Ulrich), Frederick Koehler (Lists), Jacob Vargas (Gunner), Justin Mader (Travis Colt), Robert LaSardo (Grimm), Robin Shou (14K)
Neither as bad as you fear it could be nor as good as you might hope, Death Race, hyperkinetic schlock auteur Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, is best described as a nonstop assault on the senses. It comes out with guns blazing (literally), and with the exception of a few brief respites of drama and exposition to give the movie some form of narrative logic, it never slows down. The idea seems to be to pummel the audience into submission, and it is only by virtue of the fact that Anderson manages to maintain a semblance of spatial coherence amid all the machine-gun cutting and rapid zooms that it doesn’t devolve into a complete mess.
The story takes place in the very near future (2012, to be exact), where the U.S. economy has collapsed, unemployment is sky high, and the crime rate has become so astronomical that the government has turned the prison system over to private corporations who run it on a for-profit basis (frighteningly enough, this doesn’t sound that off the mark). Hennessey (Joan Allen), the hard-driving, money-seeking warden at the dreaded Terminal Island, the end-all-be-all of prisons, has devised a perfect means of both making a buck off the system and getting rid of some of the worst prisoners: Death Race, a streaming pay-per-view bloodsport in which inmates race against each other in heavily armored cars outfitted with massive amounts of firepower and defensive weapons like smoke, oil, and explosives (if this sounds at all familiar to children of the ’80s, bear in mind that Anderson is currently in preproduction on a film version of the old arcade game Spy Hunter). If you win five races, you go free. Pretty much everyone else dies fiery deaths.
Into the fray comes Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former racecar driver whose wife is murdered by a masked assailant. The crime is pinned on him, and six months later he is sent to Terminal Island, where Hennessey immediately coerces him into taking part in Death Race, not under his own name, but as the masked fan favorite Frankenstein, who died after his last race. Hennessey wants Jensen to take up the mantel because, after all, Frankenstein is less a man than a myth, so it doesn’t really matter who’s behind the mask as long as he can drive. Jensen is outfitted with a pit team that consists of the grizzled mechanic Coach (Ian McShane, who seems to be doing an Al Pacino impression), the weapons expert Gunner (Jacob Vargas), and the walking encyclopedia Lists (Frederick Koehler). His navigator is Case (Natalie Martinez), a plentifully stacked hottie from the nearby women’s prison, and his arch-nemesis is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), who has won three races so far and was the one responsible for killing the original Frankenstein, although he doesn’t know it.
So, that’s the basic set-up, all of which is established in the opening 15 minutes, which leaves roughly 90 minutes for Anderson’s sensorial assault. To Anderson’s credit, each of the three stages of the race is made just unique enough that they don’t blur together, and while the action is certainly edited to within an inch of its life, it never slips into absolute incoherence. The film also packs a punch in that the filmmakers seem to prize physical reality over digital exaggeration, hence the many, many car crashes have a visceral power that is all too often lacking at the multiplexes these days. Anderson and cinematographer Scott Kevan (Hell Ride) favor a virtually monochromatic palette that even requires the Universal Studios logo to be desaturated, which emphasizes the grit and decay that pervades every corner of the film. It may take place at a prison, but it sure looks like a deserted industrial site that has been given only the bare minimum of set dressing.
Although based on the satirical Death Race 2000, which starred David Carradine as Frankenstein and none other than Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe, this Death Race discards virtually all social commentary in favor of nonstop carnage. Granted, there is an inherent political message in the idea that 70 million Americans would happily tune in to watch what is essentially convicted felons killing each other, but Anderson does little to explicate this idea beyond narrative necessity. If the film has a message, it’s that we’ll watch virtually anything that promises even the slightest possibility of holding our attention, but it’s a message that will likely be lost on Death Race’s core audience.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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