Death Race (2008)


If you buy a ticket for a movie called Death Race, you're expecting two things in abundance: Racing and deaths. So if you're judging a genre film based on how well it delivers on its promises, there's little denying that Paul W.S. Anderson's newest flick is a success. It might not be a very GOOD movie, but as junky-but-expensive action movies go, it's certainly a pretty good time. If, however, you walk into Death Race expecting anything besides cliches, stereotypes, races, chases, explosions, gore and non-stop machismo -- you may just leave disappointed. Loosely based on Roger Corman's 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, this new version is the pinnacle of mindlessness. Good thing it's a lot of dumb, sweaty, stylish fun to watch.

Generally dismissed as a Guilty Pleasure director (he did Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, and Alien vs. Predator, among others), British genre fan Paul Anderson leaps into this meager concoction with all the enthusiasm he can muster. (The guy's clearly a fan of the original film, even if his remake doesn't exactly stick to the source material.) What Anderson lacks in calmness and subtlety he more than makes up for in movie-geek coolness. Be a snooty cinephile if you like, but there are some really well-orchestrated action bits to be found here, and the director helps keep the energy flowing through use of quick-cut editing and a pounding rock score. I mean, how else would you put together a movie called DEATH RACE?

It's the near-future, unemployment is at an all-time high, and (for some strange reason) all of America's prisons have become corporatized. What this means is that the harrowing prison of Terminal Island has become the personal playground of the supremely evil Warden Hennessey, and this bloodthirsty gal has a plan: She streams "death races" across the internet, and the drivers are all death-row convicts. Win five races and you win your freedom. Lose the race and ... you're most likely dead, so it doesn't really matter. So it's a race movie, a prison story, an action flick -- and a revenge tale. Turns out that our hero (the ever-cool Jason Statham) has been framed (by guess who) for the murder of his wife, just so he can be in prison when the next big Death Race rolls around.

So with all the goofy plot threads laid down, with all the stock characters present and accounted for, and with our hero's seething anger a new (and very important) factor ... Death Race really starts rolling. If the movie takes just a bit too long in setting up its very basic framework, then you'll be pleased to know that the flick soars like a rocket for the last 30-some minutes, and gives you all the high-end mayhem you were hoping for. Unapologetically cheesy (and even a little snarky about it), Death Race wants to be nothing more than a diverting 92 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, and it succeeds on pure attitude, grit, and tons of well-timed explosions.

The guy has salvaged much lamer movies than this one, so I say it's high time we dub Jason Statham as one of our current reigning action stars. Clearly not an Olivier, but in possession of a tough-guy likability that other actors would kill for, Statham anchors a movie like this with no problem whatsoever. Hell, he even half-smiles a few times in this movie. The supporting players feel like they fell off of a Central Casting: Prison Movie assembly line, but at least three of the performers are clearly having a good time with this material. Joan Allen (the wonderfully nasty warden), Ian McShane (a prison mechanic), and Tyrese Gibson (the villainous Machine Gun Joe!) elevate the material through sheer power of screen presence, and they add a good deal of color to the movie's (very few) slow spots.

Lots of flick fans may dismiss Death Race because it comes from a director who's been labeled a fan's favorite punching bag for the last ten years. (I say Anderson is, at the very least, an underrated visualist, so I don't really understand the fan wrath.) But if you're looking for an enthusiastically R-rated action flick that delivers its goods with a minimum of boring BS, I'd say this one's definitely worthy of a look. It's the kind of easy target that most film critics enjoy savaging, but I choose to look a little more closely at movies like this. Empty-headed and powerfully familiar, yes, boring and poorly-made ... no way.