(Long Island, N.Y.) This is the first time in ages I’m going to voice a positive opinion of a film written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Not an overall positive opinion, mind you, but Death Race is a level above the usual deck expected of him after delivering to us such cinematic “classics” as Alien Vs. Predator and Resident Evil. And maybe the reason he’s more successful this time out is because he set his sights…lower. By that, I’m saying that Death Race is not an example of an experienced Hollywood director maturing and increasing his skill-set.
If anything, it’s a regression- it’s mindless, with all style and zero substance, and there’s hardly any plot or character development to speak of. But perhaps Mr. Anderson has finally realized that this is where he works best. Death Race is parsed down to it’s very essentials, and not weighted down by silly things like a story or logic- areas where Anderson’s movies usually cause intense pain. Does that make it a good movie? I can’t say, but if a movie scarcely leaves you time to breathe, let alone engage your brain in any way, how can it be that bad?
Death Race is yet another in a long line of Hollywood remakes. 1975’s Death Race 2000 was originally brought
to us by the granddaddy of the B-film, Roger Corman, and Paul W. S. Anderson’s “re-imagining” has been in the works for quite some time. Ensnared in legal and creative red tape, the way was finally cleared after several years and Anderson set about to finally give us his vision of…well, somebody else’s vision. Death Race 2000’s original vision was that of a campy across-America race in goofy “futuristic” cars and a point system involving how many pedestrians you managed to run over. You know, good family fun! What Mr. Anderson has done with that formula is to strip it of its satirical elements and update it for modern audiences, which means that everything is gritty, rusty, and the subject of more fast camera edits than you can imagine.
I’ll try to encapsulate our story, which shouldn’t be difficult because there’s hardly any: Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, my personal pick as heir to the long-vacated Action King throne) is a steel mill worker who just lost his job. Feeling pretty bad about his future prospects, he sucks it up and goes home to his wife and daughter. A few obligatory scenes are shoehorned in to show everyone how very much Jensen loves them, and then he’s framed out of nowhere for his wife’s murder by an unknown intruder (gee, I wonder if he shows up again later in the film…). Despite having no
motives whatsoever, Jensen is nonetheless convicted and sent to the Big House. As a coincidence (or is it?!?), this same prison is host to a deadly pay-per-view gladiatorial car contest entitled “Death Race.” The idea behind this is that prisoners race heavily armed and armored cars to the death, and whoever manages to win 5 contests in a row also earns their freedom. The reigning 4-time champ, a mysterious and wildly popular masked man known only as Frankenstein, has been out of commission for the past 6 months after eating a missile fired from the car of his arch rival, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson).
Unbeknownst to the general public, however, Frankenstein did not survive. But the prison’s evil warden (aren’t they all?) plans on extending Frankenstein’s legend (and the juicy buy-rates he ensures) as long as possible. Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), aware of Jensen Ames’ past as a professional driver (I assume she watched Transporter 1 & 2), offers him the opportunity to serve as Frankenstein’s doppelganger, and since the champ already had 4 races under his belt, all Ames need do to earn his ticket out of the slammer is to win just one more. Haunted with the idea of his daughter being raised by some creepy foster family, he begrudgingly accepts.
As for the race itself, it’s pretty simple- all the contestants have cars covered with armor plating, machine guns and missiles, and they have to race through what appears to be an enclosed, abandoned factory for 3 days while cutting each other to ribbons. While this differs greatly from the 1975 version, oddly enough the idea of each driver having a female navigator is carried over to the new film. This concept made sense back in 1975, as Death Race 2000 was a cross-country race, but in the remake it simply makes the contestants look mentally challenged when they need help driving around in a circle over and over. But it’s obvious that the navigators are there just for the cheesecake factor since they’re all shipped in from the supermodel prison, and apparently every one of them were convicted of breast implant theft since they all have the incriminating goods with ’em and out on display.
What follows is basically a lot of noise, death, violence, blood, and explosions…and then more noise, death, violence, blood, and explosions. It’s brutal, fast paced and doesn’t let up fro a second, which is good because such frenzied action helps to prevent you from realizing that the film has depth of a Petri dish. It’s also the closest I’ve ever seen a movie come to being a real-life video game. Remember playing Twisted Metal on the Sony PlayStation? Here it is, in the flesh (er, metal). I mean, in the movie there’s even icons embedded in the raceway that give you weapons when you drive over them…how much more video game-like can you get?
But in the end, it’s a solid action movie. Every character and plot point is a cliché and the overall premise is as unoriginal as it gets, but with all the racing and popular music and things going boom and people dying, there’s no time for anyone to say or do anything all that stupid or annoying. This is a stylish, brainless, bare-bones action movie, and if you look at it that way, it certainly gets the job done. This is faint praise indeed, but when it’s directed at the likes of Paul W. S. Anderson, well, the man should feel like he accomplished something (not much, but something) for once.