Review: Death Race

Set in the near-future wherein an economic collapse sees the US Penal system run by private enterprise, including the dreaded Terminal Island (hey, where have I heard that name before...) run by sadistic warden Joan Allen. She is the brainchild and overseer of the title PPV broadcast car rally known for its brutality and sadism lapped up by the audience (to the financial gain of Allen and co, of course). The recent champion, a mask-wearing freak known as Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine, who played the role in Paul Bartel’s 1975 film “Death Race 2000”), was killed in the last race under mysterious (and only slowly revealed) circumstances, after having won his previous four death races). Enter ex-NASCAR driver Jason Statham, who has just been framed, charged, and sentenced for the murder of his wife. Sent to Terminal Island, warden Allen offers him the chance to portray Frankenstein (no one’s seen the guy’s face, so what’s the diff?) and participate in the death race. If he wins five races, he will gain his freedom, just like any other Death Race competitor. Wait, how many races did the previous Frankenstein win? Hmmm. Needless to say, it’s going to be a very bumpy ride for the new Frankenstein, and it’s not just oil slicks and potholes in his way. Ian McShane plays Statham’s gruff but sage pit crew leader, Natalie Martinez is his hot navigator, Tyrese Gibson is his deadly rival Machine-Gun Joe (whose navigators tend to have short life spans), and Robert LaSardo is still playing cons and henchmen several decades after “Commando”, playing a nutjob Death Race participant.

This 2008 sort-of remake directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (director of the underrated “Resident Evil” and the less underrated “Alien vs. Predator”) was never going to be as great as the original, Roger Corman-produced “Death Race 2000”, I knew that going in. I mean, I had already heard that the original’s crucial darkly satirical bent was vetoed for a more straight-up Jason Statham testosterone overdose. Statham’s grown on me over the years, phony gruff voice and all (I really liked the ludicrous “Crank” films), so I at least held out hope that the film would be mindless action entertainment and with car chases that were not edited within an inch of their life. Did I get what I hoped for? Well, yes and no, but thankfully more in the affirmative than the negative.

The film begins with a title crawl that almost makes it seem like a sequel to the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin flick “The Condemned”, and in fact the film that this one most closely resembles is not “Death Race 2000”, but the sorely underrated Arnie flick “The Running Man” and it’s many futuristic prison movie imitators (the best of which were Stuart Gordon’s likeably trashy “Fortress” and the Rutger Hauer sci-fi version of “The Defiant Ones” called alternately “Deadlock” or “Wedlock”).

Early intermission: Before I move on in my dissection of the film itself, I need to address one aspect of the film’s opening credits that pissed me off royally. The film actually claims to be based on the ‘Roger Corman Film “Death Race 2000”’. Huh? I understand that Corman did indeed produce the earlier film and is credited as EP on this one, but the original “Death Race 2000” was a Paul Bartel film, it was directed by him and was just as Bartel-like as it was indicative of the penny-pinching (and highly intelligent and successful) Corman. Sorry, but it annoyed me, and I’m probably not the only one.

Once this film gets going, it’s actually not bad on its own level. What level is that, you ask? Completely indefensible action schlock that will have conservative twats and high-minded critics in apoplexy. It’s their loss. I can’t really give this film a good score (the original is still preferable), but I also cannot deny getting some enjoyment from a film in which McShane refers to ‘Napalm- for Defence!’ as a modification to one of the film’s vehicles. Napalm, people! Napalm! Glorious. Statham is as he always is and fits this uber-macho film like a glove, McShane has been more interesting on screen than when he was a young man, and an icy-cold Allen is surprisingly good. Yes she’s too ‘good’ for the film, yes I would have preferred Pam Grier in the role anyway (or Sybil Danning), but she does her job well here. Mind you, Carradine’s voice cameo, meanwhile, I must confess, I completely missed the first time-around.

Yes it annoys me that this film has completely changed the original’s tone, but for what it is, it pretty much works for its limited audience. An audience that like me, will grin at the notion of LaSardo playing a psycho named The Grim Reaper (His final scene is cool, as is Gibson’s subsequent one-liner). The film’s reality TV/Modern-day Gladiatorial spectacle angle I must say is handled much better than in “The Condemned”. Even the action scenes aren’t bad, especially if you’re a revhead (I’m not, unfortunately). The constant close-ups showing gear-shifts and the like didn’t bother me, the only thing that did bother me was the bizarre habit of wobbling the camera, meant to add to the tension, perhaps, but it’s just annoying. However, to have coherent action scenes in a movie these days is a rarity and at least I could follow the action here without wanting to vomit from sea-sickness (<cough> Paul Greengrass <cough>). I got a reasonable amount of dumb, macho fun out of it (there’s some nice kill scenes sprinkled throughout) in spite of all the panning, zooming and wobbling. The cars, meanwhile, are not as cool as in the original (they sorta had a violent “Wacky Racers” vibe, as did the whole film), but still rather cool.

If you can leave your brain in a cryogenic sleep for a while, and forego any allegiance you have to the original, then you might just switch on to this film’s cheesy, unashamedly stupid appeal. It’s like Anderson is shouting a big ‘Fuck You!’ to all of his critics (I’ve seen worse directors in my time, like Uwe Boll, Albert Pyun, Fred Olen Ray, and Michael Oblowitz, to name but a few). The film isn’t really any good, and probably doesn’t want to be. Sometimes I enjoy watching a film like this, even if I can’t quite get around to giving it a good score (I love “Plan 9 From Outer Space” dearly, but no way on Earth would I ever give it a five star rating!). I would’ve preferred more colour in the character department at the expense of some of the prison stuff, and also would have reinstated the satire from the original (mind you it is a bit long for this kind of disposable entertainment). Still, it is what it is, and I kinda liked it for not having loftier goals. Anyone who looks down upon a film like “Death Race” wouldn’t be watching it in the first place, but those who like their cheese with an extra side of testosterone could do a lot worse. The screenplay is by the director himself, based on the original 1975 screenplay.

Rating: C+


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