Death Race (2008)
Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Max Ryan
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Sometimes I wonder why studios don’t hire kids, force them to play with action figures, and write the results into a screenplay. It would not only be cheaper, they would get the same results as hiring someone like Paul W.S. Anderson to make a movie. It’s been four years since the “King of Hacks” ruined the two best monster franchises with Alien vs Predator, and now he’s back to piss all over the good name of Roger Corman with a big-budget remake of the wonderful Death Race 2000.
No surprise here; Death Race is as mind-scathingly bad as we all knew it would be. In fact, it hits every modern action movie cliché so hard it might very well be mistaken for brilliant parody. But it's obvious Anderson thinks this stuff is super-cool and, as with AVP, is completely oblivious as to what made the original incarnation work. The 1975 original was charismatic, gleefully exploitive, and carried a satirical edge. Anderson’s re-imagining is The Fast and The Furious with blood and swearing.
Since the concept of killing innocent pedestrians won’t fly in today’s studio system (which is shocking considering the success of the Grand Theft Auto games), Anderson sets his Death Race in a prison where convicts must race through a deadly on-site obstacle course. It’s the newest spectator sport, and the fan favorite is masked racer Frankenstein. But when the prison’s prized racer meets an untimely death, tough-guy/family-man Jansen Ames (Statham) is framed for the murder and forced to slip on the Frankenstein mask to keep the games going.
People are comparing this film to 80’s death sport flicks like The Running Man, and while Anderson blatantly steals from all of them, the result is more akin to the Rollerball remake: Bigger, louder, and stupider with far less entertainment value. It’s a feature length music video where cars and characters are constantly posing for the camera. Anderson is clearly trying to have fun with it, pushing the gore and destruction as far as he can, but lacks the basic imagination to make a serviceable B-movie.
Jason Statham (who plays Jason Statham perfectly) is on badass auto-pilot while facing off with a supporting cast of ethnic stereotypes. No one really stands out, aside from Joan Allen in a career low point as the female version of the evil Shawshank Redemption warden. As in the original, each driver gets a hot female navigator that is mostly there for eye-candy. The original Corman girls had spunk and showed plenty of skin (where’s Mary Woronov when you need her?), but here they’re vapid models who bump n’ grind to Latin hip-hop and show off their midriffs. That’s the big difference between these two versions: The original embraced itself as trash. This is PC Hollywood trash.
Death Race is also proof positive that no one in Hollywood knows how to film action sequences anymore. Like Michael Bay, Anderson isn’t content to just place the camera and orchestrate impressive stunts. He whips the camera all over the place, zooms in and out of the action, and edits it all together like an epileptic monkey. Is there some new studio mantra that incoherence equals action? It doesn’t matter how real the stunts are; each one comes off as artificial as a Pixar movie.
After ninety minutes of car explosions, Jason Statham’s character gives a monologue explaining how “love conquers all”, cementing Anderson’s status as the single worst writer in Hollywood. This new Death Race is a poser, a fake, an imposter. What’s worse is that this tactless excuse for mindless entertainment will probably score big with the same teenage audiences that made Meet the Spartans a hit. Paul Bartel must be rolling around in his grave.
1 1/2 out of 5
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