Death Race (2008)
Death Race (2008)

Genre: Action Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: August 22nd, 2008 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson Actors: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas

 


 

E

ardrum-shatteringly loud and expectedly rambunctious, 2008’s “Death Race” bears the distinct marks of director Paul W.S. Anderson’s fondness for fast action and brutal violence. But a heavy focus on visuals can’t overcome an extremely predictable storyline – one that abandons (or simply loses) most of the magic of Roger Corman’s 1975 exploitation classic. While an interesting commentary on America’s infatuation with violence lies buried beneath all the metal and mayhem, what is clearly exposed is a less interactive, R-rated “Mario Kart” for adults.

The year 2012 finds the United States’ economy collapsed, unemployment off the charts, and prisons filled to capacity. Greedy corporations control the system and stage live competitions to the death for entertainment. In the ever-present bid for more riotously bloodthirsty spectacles, notorious Terminal Island prison warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) creates Death Race, a three-part car-race for freedom, where the only rule is to stay alive. When Frankenstein, the most infamous Death Race combatant, dies shortly after a competition, Hennessey frames driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) for murder and blackmails him into participating in the latest deathmatch – under the guise of the deceased Frankenstein. Realizing he’s trapped, Ames has no choice but to race – though with the help of his dedicated crew of mechanics and his navigator Case (Natalie Martinez), he might just be able to find a way to exact revenge on those who wronged him.

Jason Statham seems to be the go-to guy for silly action movies of late. He may not be as charismatic as some of his predecessors (like Schwarzenegger and Stallone), but he does get the job done. In “Death Race,” he’s appropriately stone-faced and serious, with a touch of camaraderie and even a little humor, creating an antihero that’s easy to root for. This is good because there’s little else to cheer for other than the violent and over-the-top death sequences, which were an obvious highlight of the original film – and a signifier of target audience mentality.

Ames’ dogfights are littered with uncreative stereotypes of very angry men, fueled by hatred and a general distaste for life. Tyrese Gibson portrays a particularly unintimidating antagonist, whose menace is relegated to mediocre taunts and whose sexuality seems to be constantly under question. And the rest of the rivals are merely obstacles, as lifeless as the bullets and juggernaut tanks that hinder the hero’s progress. The exception is Joan Allen’s Hennessey, who is so annoyingly cocky and overwrought with forced aggression that her eventual comeuppance is barely adequate compensation for her copious screentime.

The very essence of a B-movie has been dragged out of “Death Race” and fattened up to the point that it is anything but second-grade material. Convincing special effects, high definition detonations, and top quality set designs are but a few of the aspects that are too good to be bad. Unlike the 1975 film, which rose from humble origins to become a cult classic (chiefly due to its unusually fun, satirical themes of anarchy and nihilism), this new adaptation tries too hard to go for specific audience reactions. As director Paul W.S. Anderson force-feeds viewers the moments he wishes to be perceived as ultra hip, the more entertaining subtleties are likely to be ignored. For example, as the shapely Natalie Martinez tantalizingly sways in slow motion, an interesting, stolen idea from “The Shawshank Redemption” might be overlooked. But perhaps that’s a good thing.

Like some twisted, hybrid reality TV show abomination of “BattleBots” and “The Fast and the Furious,” the new “Death Race” is tragically insincere. But crowned with Roger Corman’s own producer credit, it just might be appropriately nonsensical (as if homage redeems sterility). From the abundance of bikini-clad girls to the hilariously pitiable dialogue to the safety warning at the end credits (asking the easily impressionable to refrain from stunt car driving), “Death Race” can’t – and shouldn’t – be taken seriously.

– The Massie Twins

  • 5/10