STARRING: Jason Statham, Tyrese
Gibson, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke
2008, Unknown Minutes, Directed by:
Paul W.S. Anderson
it tastes like sleaze.
It's easy to get huffy and
indignant about Death Race. There's so much for respectable film-goers to hate:
a big-budge remake of a true grindhouse classic, a lot of gratuitous violence, a
giant studio trying to be hip for the kids, and the pretence of genuine social
commentary undone by the way legitimate issues are exploited for cheap thrills.
Strong arguments, one and all. And yet in some very tangible way, they miss the
point. Death Race is supposed to revel in meaningless sadism. It's
supposed to parlay important questions into ham-fisted button-pushing. It's
supposed to be cheap and tacky and brazenly exploitative. Complaining about all
that is like critiquing Snow White for being a cartoon or Yellow
Submarine for being full of Beatles songs. Death Race is exactly what
its creators wanted it to be and exactly what fans of quick, dirty thrills
expect. Those inclined to other pursuits have plenty of warning to stay away.
On the other hand, this new
version of 1975's Death Race 2000 loses a great deal of
its predecessor's soul . Director Paul Bartel infused puckish iconoclasm into
his original drive-in quickie, complete with cartoonish pro-wrestling-style
drivers engaged in its cheerfully violent cross-country car race. "Iconoclastic"
doesn't exactly fit director Paul W.S. Anderson, who helms the updated version
as a cog in the NBC-Universal machine. It's clankier, grittier, and ostensibly
more plausible: corporate product through and through, right down to the "don't
try this at home" warning just before the final credits. It doesn't even have
joyful bits of naughtiness like Euthanasia Day… and if you don't have Euthanasia
Day, you really don't have Death Race, do you?
"It ain't Shakespeare, but carries an agreeable kick . . ."
Again, however, that signpost
is well-lit and while this new version lacks the charm of its predecessor, it
still makes good use of a very serviceable idea. The race this time takes place
on an island prison in the near future. With the U.S. economy in collapse and
gladiatorial blood sports on the rise (a not-so-subtle dig at the film's
intended audience), the corporate forces running the penal system hit upon a
They rig hot rods with machine guns, place condemned prisoners
behind the wheel, and let them strafe their way around a track for the chance to
earn their freedom. It becomes a pay-per-view sensation, overseen by the
prison's ice queen warden (a gloriously slumming Joan Allen) and maintained by colorful driver/inmates like Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). When former
stock-car racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is wrongly convicted of murdering
his wife, the warden sees an opportunity to keep the franchise in the pink. Fan-favorite
Frankenstein was killed in the most recent race, but he always wore a mask and
no one knew what he looked like. With a little prodding, Ames can don the same
get-up and return Frankenstein to the Death Race circuit.
As satire, it's supremely
po-faced and Anderson's crude swipes at our current economic woes never reflect
the courage of his convictions. He does much better with the kinetic mayhem of
the races themselves--chopped up by blink-and-you'll-miss-it editing, but
infused with the kind of raw energy that comes from using proper stunt work
alongside the green screens. Death Race adds a few interesting kinks to
its central gimmick, which keeps the endless demolition derbies from becoming
repetitive. Statham has carved a nice little niche for himself in the B-movie
universe, and his appealing mixture of toughness and sympathy gives us a viable
rooting interest amid all the cardboard characters. Ian McShane chimes in too as
his unflappable mechanic Coach, and while this work is clearly beneath someone
like Allen, she sports a perennial twinkle in her eye reminding would-be critics
to lighten the hell up.
Beyond that, Death Race
goes nowhere gloriously fast, tossing out loads of horrible people for Ames to
snuff and skating on the contrived notion that somehow the rigged game he's
playing can be beaten. It ain't Shakespeare, but carries an agreeable kick and
the film's grimy post-industrial atmosphere has a stark simplicity which becomes
endearing after awhile. The potential for a genuinely great action movie
glimmers somewhere in there too, tough to spot but tantalizing when it appears.
It's enough to remind us how much further this concept might have gone were the
filmmakers not perfectly happy wallowing in the sewers. Those prepared to join
them down there will find plenty of amoral diversions to spice things up. August
was made for movies like Death Race.
You don't have to like it, but
you can't fault it for being true to its nature: as guilty a pleasure as you're
likely to find.