Review: Death Race
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
How do you like your action? If the answer is fast, noisy, and brainless, then “Death Race,” habitual video game adapter Paul W.S. Anderson's retooling of Roger Corman's 1975 cult film, “Death Race 2000,” is for you. For the rest of us, who require a little more expertise behind our explosions, it's an absurd and abhorrent pile of cheap scrap metal. I'm giving it one star because it doesn't bore – its pace is as quick as the rugged, armed contraptions that roar around its minefield of a track -- but that's about the only way in which the movie is successful. In it, Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) attempts to emulate many of his apparent heroes, Corman included, but fails to serve anyone well – least of all the audience.
“Death Race” stalls right out the starting gate, when an overabundance of overly explanatory text blasts across the screen and breaks the ultimate rule of “show, don't tell” by filling us in on the heavy-handed back story as if we were all still reading at a junior high level. We learn – or, better yet, are force-fed the knowledge – that the year is 2012 and the economy has crumbled, shooting unemployment to an all-time high. In turn, crime has skyrocketed as well and America's most wanted have been moved to Terminal Island, an Alcatraz-like prison built off the coast of a city I can't remember. Taking an obvious cue from last year's “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vehicle, “The Condemned,” the movie attempts to cash in on reality TV mania by focusing on a brutal, live-broadcast competition in which Terminal prisoners race one another to the death in souped-up sports cars. Audience bloodlust (an angle that's been used to far greater effect in everything from “Network” to “Natural Born Killers”) makes the show a hit and turns inmates into action heroes who continue to play the game because of a promise of freedom to the victor of five consecutive races.
That exhaustive preamble is followed by the first of many frenetically photographed chase sequences, in which the zooms and cuts are as violent as the driver dismemberments. (Even in interiors, Scott Kevan's camera work and Niven Howie's editing are so frenzied that it's often hard to decipher what's happening, let alone enjoy it.) Somewhere in the chaos, we're introduced to Machine Gun Joe (singer-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson, replacing Sylvester Stallone from the original), a loose cannon with a few wins under his belt, and Frankenstein (originally played by David Carradine), the reigning champion who wears a mask and is a favorite among pay-per-viewers (it costs $250 to watch one race). Meanwhile, struggling factory worker Jensen Ames (a totally toned and tattooed Jason Statham, back for yet more action) has been framed for the murder of his wife, landing him in a Terminal cell. A former NASCAR favorite, Ames is ordered by warden/show creator Hennessey (an insanely out of place Joan Allen, who must have a Corman fetish to have stooped this low) to step into Frankenstein's anonymous, recently vacated shoes in order to retain ratings. Enlisting the help of handyman Coach (Ian McShane) and hot navigator Case (fresh eye candy Natalie Martinez), Ames complies and tries to stay alive long enough to turn the tables on Hennessey and deliver a last minute sentiment that's even more misplaced than Allen.
Throughout “Death Race,” Anderson (who also wrote the script) gives repeated, blatant nods to far better filmmakers who've made far better films. After a mess hall brawl, Coach observes that Ames may not have responded well to Terminal's oatmeal in a line that's practically a verbatim repetition of one delivered by a soldier in James Cameron's “Aliens” (which should come as no surprise after the fanboy-toned “AVP”). And in wide, CGI shots of Terminal and its adjacent city (the only notions we're given of the world that's meant to exist within the movie), torches can be seen spewing streams of orange flames, the same way they did in Ridley Scott's classic sci-fi noir, “Blade Runner.” It's cute that Anderson, 43, wants to give a wink-wink to the directors and films he grew up idolizing but when all you're creating is one throwaway flick after another, any homage is gonna come off more like a bad joke. Sorry, Paul, you're no James Cameron and you're no Ridley Scott and it's disheartening to think that you're often mistaken for another Paul Anderson, who's created enduring American epics and been nominated for Oscars.
In addition to its headache-inducing construction, “Death Race” is laced with so much hackneyed dialogue that you can hear it coming like a tricked-out tank. Fine actors like Allen and McShane do their best to say lines like “she's the judge, jury, and executioner” with gusto but even the best thespians often can't give life to dead banalities. Gibson is the only one who comfortably and believably utters Anderson's asinine, profanity-filled sentences, perhaps just because the actor's gruff demeanor is better suited to the simple speech of bottom-dwellers. And I haven't even touched on the fact that many plot elements here make no sense at all. (If everyone's out of work, how on Earth can 70 million viewers afford to watch carnage on cable at $250 a pop? And if those viewers are given the option to watch the races from dozens of camera angles, including inside the cars themselves, can't anyone see that Hennessey is unfairly determining the outcomes by rigging traps on the track?)
As mentioned, “Death Race” moves along with speed, but what's the point of cutting the crap when all you've got is crap to begin with? I hear that televised NASCAR races tend to be boredom-free as well. You'd be better off plopping down on the couch with a few beers and a few buddies and screaming curses at the screen than paying nearly ten bucks to have Statham and company scream them back at you.