Death Race

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/22/08 00:00:00

"A crazy, dirty blast."
3 stars (Just Average)

Yes, “Death Race” is an in-name-only remake of the 1975 cult classic “Death Race 2000,” and yes, it’s a big ball of stupid, and yes, it’s pretty damn fun.

The film, written and directed by unabashed schlocketeer Paul W.S. Anderson (“Event Horizon,” yay! “Alien vs. Predator,” boo!), cherry picks a tiny handful of elements from the Roger Corman-produced original, namely: the title, a couple character names, and a dystopian future. Everything else is brand new, or as brand new as you can get while essentially copying every single scene from a dozen other movies and, more importantly, video games. Yup, it’s not enough for Anderson to borrow liberally from “The Running Man” and “The Road Warrior.” He’s gotta lift from “Mario Kart,” too.

That’s right, “Mario Kart.” And a dozen other racing games. An important rule of the race involves “unlocking” your vehicle’s weapons by driving over computerized checkpoints. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson developed “Death Race” specifically with video games in mind. At times, it barely feels like a movie, as the mechanics of the race are more in tune with the mechanics of modern gameplay than with modern storytelling.

And yet, well, it all works, in its own dopey B-movie way. The whole thing has a certain gritty kick to it, and it’s quite gleeful in the way it delivers exactly what the audience wants: intense car races, over-the-top bloodshed, and a badass revenge story. While it lacks the sarcastic tone, pitch black humor, and twisted inventiveness of the original film, this remake is self-aware enough to revel in its excesses.

The story opens in the near future, when the American economy has collapsed and corporations run everything, including prisons. Inspired by Stephen King (and “The Condemned,” and “Wrong Turn 2,” and every other movie with something “clever” to say about reality TV), those corporations set up televised death matches for the prisoners. The big hit is “Death Race,” in which prisoners drive decked-out killmobiles around what appears to be a factory warehouse, or perhaps a warehouse factory. Lots of rust and sparks, that sort of place. The three-day event, webcast to some seventy million viewers (everybody’s broke, but they can still afford the $250 subscription fee?), has two levels of “kill everyone and try not to die,” followed by a final day of “be the first to finish, and try not to die.” Five wins, and you go free. Nobody’s ever gone free.

Into this mess comes Jensen Ames (Statham), a former race car driver framed for the murder of his wife. The prison’s ice queen warden (Joan Allen, slumming and loving it!) makes him an offer: dress up as masked racer/fan favorite “Frankenstein” for the chance to go free. He takes the deal, mainly to help find the guy who killed his wife (and perhaps the warden who set it up?). Assisted by pit boss Coach (Ian McShane), Ames spends the next three days negotiating a track riddled with booby traps and angry drivers. Oh, and each driver gets a scantily-clad jiggle-riffic female navigator, because this movie knows no shame, and that is awesome.

The plot, the set-up, the whole thing is wafer thin. Plot twists will surprise no one, dialogue is clichéd, and characters are one-dimensional. The reality TV angle is flat and derivative. Anderson’s reliance on the “shaky-cam” look is tiresome.

But the energy. Oh, the energy in this thing! Once the motors rev and the bullets fly, “Death Race” becomes a glorious celebration of cinematic kinetics. Like to see cars blow up, people crushed, blood fly? “Death Race” has something for you, delivered with a devilish grin. It’s a bloodbath in the best grindhouse fashion, only this time, when a guy gets blown to pieces, the movie will cheerfully supply the slo-mo instant replay.

And it’s this no-holds-barred attitude that makes “Death Race” such a vulgar delight. Anderson’s willing to throw everything at us, resulting in a sort of subversive cheese. A thoroughly butch Tyrese Gibson as a homosexual thug? A snarling Joan Allen growling profanities that would make a sailor blush? Ian McShane talking right to the camera? Is Anderson attempting to create his own campiness? Could be. “Death Race” has plenty of sick laughs all its own, adding up to gritty, twisted, dark, bloody fun.

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