by Mel Valentin
The word “abysmal” doesn’t even come close to describing "Death Race," the unnecessary remake of the 1975 cult classic, "Death Race 2000," produced by Roger Corman (who needs no introduction). For the remake, Corman and his co-producers tapped Paul W.S. Anderson; no not the director of "There Will Be Blood," "Punch Drunk Love," "Magnolia," or "Boogie Nights," but the fine British auteur who’s contributed his directing, writing, and even his producing talents to such well-regarded genre entries like "Alien vs. Predator," "Resident Evil," "Soldier," "Event Horizon," and "Mortal Kombat." Seriously, outside of "Even Horizon," a sci-fi/horror film notable primarily for its Gothic production design than its slasher-in-space storyline, Anderson hasn’t written or directed anything worthwhile. Not that any of that matters: Anderson has managed to carve out a career as a director of profitable genre films. The remake of "Death Race 2000" will probably follow that pattern, all the way to mediocre box office returns for Anderson and action star Jason Statham.Death Race opens with a lengthy, written description of how and what went wrong between the present, our present presumably, and the year 2012. After a long depression, the U.S. government has gone corporate, as in wholly corporate owned. Prisons are now run for-profit. One prison, headed by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), expands that for-profit ethos through gladiatorial contests aired over the pay-for-view Internet and when hits begin to suffer and with them, profits, gladiatorial combat involving souped-up, armored cars equipped with everything from machine guns to short-range missiles on a racetrack located around the island prison. When Hennessey’s most popular driver, Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine, the star of the original film), gets seriously injured in a race with Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), Frankenstein’s longtime rival, she goes looking for a permanent replacement.
"No, it's not so-bad-it's-actually-good, just flat-out bad."
Framed for a capital crime, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an ex-car driver turned unemployed ex-steelworker turned convicted murderer, ends up in Hennessey’s prison. Almost immediately, she offers Ames’ a deal: pretend he’s Frankenstein in one more, one last race in exchange for a pardon and walking papers. Hennessey also dangles Ames’ infant daughter as bait. He wins, he sees his daughter. He loses, he dies in prison, while his daughter is raised by a new set of parents. To get up to speed, literally and figuratively, Hennessey gives Ames’ Frankenstein’s pit crew: Coach (Ian McShane), Lists (Frederick Koehler), and Gunner (Jacob Vargas). Hennessey also gives Ames a navigator, Case (Natalie Martinez), a convict from a nearby women’s prison. Besides Machine Gun Joe, Ames’ other opponents in the Death Race include Pachenko (Max Ryan), a Russian with a grudge against Ames, Travis Colt (Justin Mader), a former NASCAR driver, Grimm (Robert LaSardo), a tattooed sadist, and, to cover major ethnic groups that engage in crime, 14K (Robin Shou), a Triad leader.
Anderson unashamedly borrows from far superior science fiction-action films like Rollerball (corporate-owned America, a violent sport used to pacify the masses), Mad Max and its first sequel, The Road Warrior (cars as weapons of mass destruction), The Running Man (framed hero, another violent sport, also used to pacify the masses), and Escape From New York (island prison, anti-authoritarian anti-hero, duplicitous authority figures). And when that’s not enough, Anderson begs, borrows, and steals from videogames like Twisted Metal (e.g., weapons activated by driving over color-coded, symbol covered manhole covers, massive amounts of metallic-themed mayhem). What Anderson doesn't borrow from the original or any of the other films cited here is the social commentary that once, long ago, made those films more than just popular genre efforts.
Apparently eager to give Death Race topical, if superficial, relevance, Anderson decided to make Ames an out-of-work steelworker (with a British accent no less). Who knew the United States of Corporate America still had working steel mills? Apparently, Anderson did and used that “knowledge” in the opening scene, a confrontation between pissed off, underpaid, newly unemployed steelworkers and nightstick-wielding police in riot gear, all in an effort to make the working class anti-hero instantly sympathetic. Well, that and an intruder who shows up to break up Ames’ relatively stable domestic life a few minutes later. Other than the overly familiar vision of a dystopian America ruled by corporate oligarchs and violent, limb- and life-threatening sports as mass entertainment, Anderson’s social and political critique stops there.Luckily, Statham’s hypertrophied, furrowed-brow charisma is around to elevate Anderson’s woefully underwritten, cliché-ridden screenplay. There’s only so much Statham can do, though, to help bridge the car stunt-filled action scenes. He can look worried or concerned; he can look angry or concerned, and he can look pissed off or concerned (dramatic range isn’t Statham’s thing). And when the car stunts become stale and repetitive, "Death Race" doesn’t so much go off the tracks as sputter in the middle of the highway as other cars roar past, seconds away from being totaled by a semi.
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originally posted: 08/22/08 08:00:00