Death Race

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/22/08 00:00:00

"Let Me Be Cruel, Not Unnatural"
1 stars (Sucks)

Produced in 1975 at a time when the rising levels of violence in professional sports inspired both public outcries and a solemn, big-budget epic of speculative science-fiction based on that concept in Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball,” Paul Bartel’s “Death Race 2000” was a low-budget extravaganza from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures that combined bloody action and jet-black comedy to tell the story of a futuristic government-sanctioned cross-country auto race in which there were no rules, the contestants were free to knock out their competition by any means necessary and bonus points were scored for every pedestrian that they struck and killed along the way. Since it was a Corman production, Bartel couldn’t rely on elaborate special effects and stunt choreography to tell his story (although both were surprisingly good considering the circumstances) and as a result, he placed his emphasis on sly satire, colorful characters (David Carrradine, Mary Woronov and a pre-celebrity Sylvester Stallone were among the drivers) and a certain heedless nihilism (including a finale in which the thoroughly corrupt President of the United States is assassinated, by the hero no less, in what was meant to be a happy ending for one and all). The result was one of the best exploitation movies of the period and, as a recent viewing confirmed, one that still holds up pretty well today both as social satire and as a slam-bang action epic.

Now we have “Death Race,” the long-planned big-budget remake of the film that comes to us with what appears to be a fairly substantial budget, the backing of a major studio and such familiar faces as Jason Statham, Ian McShane and Joan Allen (yes, Joan Allen). Although the idea of remaking perfectly adequate movies is, of course, anathema to any true cineaste, an updated version of this particular property isn’t an inherently bad idea and with the presence of those particular actors, it could be argued that it has the potential to at least be interesting. Alas, the problem with “Death Race” is that it comes to us through Paul W.S. Anderson, whose previous crimes against cinema, including “Mortal Kombat,” “Soldier,” “Event Horizon” and “Alien Vs. Predator,” have been so completely lacking in excitement, entertainment or even basic cinematic skills that he is perhaps Uwe Boll’s only real rival for the title of World’s Worst Living Filmmaker. (In all fairness, I will give him some credit for being the brains, for lack of a better term, behind the superlatively goofy “Resident Evil” films.) This is a person who has, as far as I can tell, never set foot on a movie set with an original thought in his head, a coherent story to tell or an understanding of how to stage the elaborate scenes of violence and mayhem that he likes to stage in lieu of those original thoughts or coherent stories and of all things that he doesn’t do in “Death Race,” altering his filmmaking approach tops the list and the result is a work that is so stupid, so noisy and so utterly bereft of a reason to exist (and without offering any glimpses of Milla Jovovich as compensation) that there is a distinct possibility that that it could a new low even for him. After all, most of his previous projects involved him blowing premises that were fairly silly to begin with (seeing as how the majority were inspired by video games) and which even the greatest filmmakers might have had trouble bringing to life while “Death Race” takes a premise that should have been a slam dunk and then squanders it in such a way that it would have been jeered out of grindhouses across the country 30-odd years ago and seems likely to face the same fate at multiplexes this weekend.

In an interminable series of opening subtitles, we learn of how the U.S. was plunged into economic chaos and rising unemployment in 2012 (I guess McCain did win after all) and how, in order to entertain and distract the masses, the overcrowded maximum security prisons began staging gladiator-style sporting events for pay-per-view consumption that would eventually pave the way for Death Race, in which prisoners shoot, slam and smash it out with each other in cars tricked out with weapons galore and in which five victories can ensure an early release. Jason Statham, who can now lay claim to having worked with both Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson on films released during the same calendar year, stars as Jensen Ames, a hardworking family man who, as the movie opens, has a bad day that starts with him getting laid off of his job at a steel mill and ends with him being framed for the murder of his loving wife. Six months later, he lands in the prison run by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen,. . .yes, Joan Allen), the creator of Death Race. Coincidentally, the next Death Race is in a few days and since Jensen Ames (who presumably would have been named Jensen Unemployed-Steel-Worker if this actually had been made by Uwe Boll) was once a famous race car driver before he lost his license many years earlier, he is summoned to Hennessey’s office and presented with an intriguing proposal. It seems that the most popular Death Race contestant, the masked and mysterious person known as Frankenstein, actually perished on the operating table after sustaining critical injuries in his last race--since no one knows what he looks like and since ratings since his absence have slipped considerably, Hennessey wants Jensen to slip on the mask and drive as Frankenstein in order to boost ratings. Since Frankenstein also has four wins already, if Jensen wins this one, he will get released from prison and be reunited with his infant daughter. Of course, it isn’t that easy and as Jensen does increasingly violent battle on the track with his opponents, especially chief rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), while aided by a grizzled coach helpfully named Coach (Ian McShane) and a hot navigator (Nathalie Martinez) who seem to have been included to satisfy the requirement that all cars come equipped with a set of air bags (and if you object to that joke, please explain why a driver would require a navigator in a race that is confined to the grounds of the prison), it gradually begins to dawn on him that even if he does manage to survive the three legs of the competition, Hennessey has no real intention of letting him leave her prison unless it is in a cheap pressboard coffin.

In one of the more famous stories to emerge from the production of the original “Death Race 2000,” it is said that Paul Bartel’s preferred cut of the film originally contained a lot more humor that Roger Corman apparently axed at the last second on the assumption that audiences wouldn’t respond to the mixture of violence and comedy. Happily, he wasn’t able to excise all of it and it made the film all the better because it made what might have otherwise been a pointless and unbearably violent near-snuff film into something that wouldn’t appeal only to gearheads and sadists and it is the reason why it retains a cult following today. (Hell, Corman now takes credit for the humor that does remain in the current version in interviews now that the late Bartel is no longer able to contradict his recollections.) In one of the many boneheaded decisions that he made in bringing “Death Race” to the screen, Anderson apparently decided that Corman was right all along and has pretty much scrubbed the entire thing clean of any of the satirical elements that made the original so memorable. Instead, we are treated to a thuddingly grim take on the material that is theoretically supposed to be condemning the savage appetites of increasingly bloodthirsty audiences while catering exclusive to their lust for mindless brutality in virtually ever scene. And when Anderson does decide to lighten the mood with a little bit of humor, it certainly isn’t with any of that pesky satire that might trouble of confuse some of the denser audience members--instead, it goes for the kind of broadly boneheaded gags that anyone can see coming a mile away. His idea of sterling wit is to set up that Hennessey is no fan of vulgar language (sort of an odd quirk for someone running a maximum-security prison, you might think) in the first act so that when it appears that Jensen has slipped through her grasp in the third, we get to hear her curse a blue streak. Ah, Paul W.S. Anderson, you truly are a wit and scholar for the ages.

Okay, perhaps the realization that the satirical elements found in the original “Death Race 2000” are left wanting in this new version is not exactly the most shocking of surprises--those are precisely the things that tend to get eliminated from big-budget movies all the time in order to broaden their potential audience appeal (because if there is a title that screams “mass-market appeal,” it is “Death Race”). What is surprising is that even though the original film was made more than 30 years ago on a short schedule and a miniscule budget, its scenes of car-based carnage are actually more exciting and cinematically inventive than the messes on display here. Simply put, Anderson has no idea of how to stage any kind of action-oriented scene--be it a car chase, a shootout or a fistfight--and tries to cover up his deficiencies each time by over-editing every such scene until we have virtually no idea about who is fighting who and where everyone is in relation to everyone else. Even the car stunts, the central reason for a film of this type, are surprisingly uninvolving--they are certainly noisy and flashy as all get out but they have been so thoroughly tricked out with CGI and the like that whatever impact they might have once had is completely lost in the chaos. You could put scenes from both versions of the film in front of someone who knows absolutely nothing about the filmmaking process (Paul W.S. Anderson not included) and I am certain that nearly all of them would come away liking the original more because it involved real people taking part in real stunts for people who knew how to stage and execute an action sequence--by comparison, the action in this remake is so devoid of anything resembling excitement that it could be argued that “Autumn Sonata” had more genuine edge-of-your-seat thrills by comparison.

With its cavalier squandering of a presumably large budget, a promising premise and an excellent cast (I can almost understand why the underrated Statham is here--it plays into his cool and collected brute persona that he has honed in infinitely better films--but I have no idea what Joan Allen. . .yes, Joan Allen, could have possibly been thinking when she signed on), “Death Race” could very well be the biggest waste of time and effort that you are likely to encounter in a theater this year. This is a film with no excitement, no pizzazz and no evident point for it to even exist other than to exploit a familiar title in the hopes of scoring a few bucks from audiences who are either too young or too dopey to have seen the original. Speaking of that, I couldn’t help but notice that the name of the prison, Terminal Island, is also the name of another impressive exploitation film from around the same time as the original “Death Race 2000.” I don’t know if this was an in-joke, a coincidence or a subtle hint on Anderson’s part as to what well-known property her wants to “improve” next. If it does indeed turn out to be the latter of the three, consider yourself duly warned.

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