Friday, January 09, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Death Race (2008)

Where's Richard Dawson when you really need him?

I'm not certain precisely how this occurred, but in setting out to remake Paul Bartel's iconic Death Race 2000 (1975), director Paul W.S. Anderson (Soldier [1998], Resident Evil [2002] and AVP [2004]) instead ended up with a film highly derivative of the Governator's 1987 sci-fi actioner, The Running Man.

Unfortunately, it's a second-rate copy. Of both films.

The original Death Race 2000, as you may or may not recall, was a deliberately ironic social commentary about the surfeit of violence in our contemporary society (and media); a kind of bread and circuses/Decay of the Empire-type tale.

The seventies Corman film (which starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone) concerned a futuristic cross-country race in which racers would mow down pedestrians, thereby scoring points in a popular driving contest.

Death Race 2000 also concerned - on a larger scale - the undoing of the corrupt regime that fostered such mindless, violent entertainment. The production values were low, but god the entertainment level was high

By point of comparison, Arnie's The Running Man was set in the year 2017, after the U.S. economy had collapsed. Americans distracted themselves from their financial woes with a murderous reality/game show in which convicted criminals would run for their lives from armed, American-Gladiator-style nemeses. These criminals would gain their freedom if they survived a dangerous gauntlet: a murderous and wide-ranging game field. The film's protagonist was Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger), a man wrongly convicted of murder. His dedicated enemy was smarmy Killian (Family Feud host Richard Dawson), the game show ring-master and ratings-hungry celebrity who controlled the corrupt games.

So along comes Death Race (2008), set in 2012 -- the year the U.S. Economy collapses (hey, I thought that happened in 2008...). Crime has spiraled out-of-control and our prisons have been modified to generate a profit. In particular, there's a popular reality show stream on the Internet called "death race." In this competition, convicted criminals drive an obstacle course (in three stages) and kill one another in the fierce quest to arrive at the finish line first. The game is a ratings and money winner for its designer, prison Warden Hennessey (a very puffy, apparently-botoxed Joan Allen).

When her prized racer, the masked Frankenstein, dies, evil Hennessey decides to resurrect the legend and make an invisible substitution. She frames an innocent man and former professional driver, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) for the murder of his beloved wife. When Ames is conveniently remanded to Hennessey's Terminal Island Prison six months later, he is offered his freedom...if he participates in the death race.

Unlike either The Running Man or the original Death Race 2000, however, this new Death Race lacks wit, intelligence, and meaningful sub-text. Whereas the previous films featured a point-of-view on their corrupt future cultures as well as an opinion about the purpose/presentation of violence in the pop culture, Anderson's entry in these sweepstakes represents nothing beyond the obvious. This isn't a comment on a death race, it's just a violent death race. It is the very thing that The Running Man and Death Race 2000 mocked.

The most grievous missing ingredient, however, is humor. Both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man understood how to capitalize on the premise of an insidious game/race/event with tongue planted firmly-in-cheek, with grace, even with a sense of wicked fun. You could enjoy the action but not feel totally debauched because your mind was also engaged. This Death Race is a lumbering tale told by idiots, signifying nothing.

There are two ways, I reckon, in which this movie could have succeeded under the terms it set for itself. The first way involves style. The film could have been so spectacularly-shot, so tightly-edited, so rigorously-paced that the details of the race (and who survives it) would have proven exhilarating and involving. Unfortunately, the film's style is sledge-hammer stupid to match the tone.

The cinematography is a perfect example. In Death Race, film style is reduced literally to the level of the Hokey-Pokey. You zoom your camera in. You zoom your camera out. You zoom your camera in. And you shake-it-all about. You do the herky jerky and you turn yourself around. That's what it's all about.

By the end of the movie's prologue you've already figured out the movie's big stylistic gun: all the car interior scenes are rendered "exciting" and "kinetic" by the camera man's unceasing and spastic varying of focal length. After two minutes, this hokey-pokey gets old. After ten minutes, it's a joke. After ninety minutes, you want a barf bag.

Visually, the film is unceasingly dull. The race track look exactly like your average, run-of-the-mill warehouse row (only with water matted around the periphery, so the action appears to be set on an island). And all the cars are virtually indistinguishable...pieces of junk that lack the flourish and creativity of the original's vehicles. Their machine gun fire appears optically created with bad CGI.

And don't get me started on the two Michael Bay-style "slow motion" sequences in which gorgeous ladies (meaning Eye Candy) arrive via bus (or car), and we get lingering, lascivious T & A shots, accompanied by aggressive, pounding rap music. These moments are ridiculous and cliched, but Death Race isn't smart enough to realize it.

Much more significantly, there's not a single memorable or distinctive action scene in the entire film. And that's bad for a cinematic contest that prides itself on being "the ultimate auto carnage."

The only aspect of Death Race I can praise with any degree of enthusiasm is Jason Statham. As always, he's engaging, charismatic and a dynamic physical presence. And he deserves a better script.

With a little care, Death Race might have distinguished itself right there: via narrative clarity and an air-tight plot; by making all the characters act in consistent, reasonable, recognizably human fashion. To do that, again, you require a good script. Unfortunately, Paul Anderson mistook the idea of critiquing bread and circuses for simply presenting bread-and-circuses.

An example of narrative confusion: the "Death Race" event occurs in three separate stages. It's a money-making affair (viewers pay 99 dollars per stage; 250 dollars for the whole show...). So the idea, obviously, is to stretch the race out as long as possible -- to all three stages -- so as to pick up new viewers and rake in the bucks. (Indeed, the race's final stage draws 70 million viewers, so you do the math...).

So what does Hennessey do? In Stage 2 -- Stage 2, mind you! -- she unleashes her secret weapon, a colossal and intimidating attack vehicle called the "Dreadnought." It promptly takes out a celebrity racer named 14K, and almost offs both Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe, the two top racers. In fact, it is such a dangerous "surprise" on the track that it forces these dedicated enemies (Frank and Joe) to team up. Heck of a job, Hennessey.

Now tell me, why introduce a secret weapon like that in all likelihood will end the race...during Stage Two? Now, if you introduced the attack vehicle in Stage Three, say, to prevent any of the survivors from gaining their promised freedom, I'd understand. I might even applaud. But to introduce a doomsday weapon in Stage Two when you want there to be a Stage Three (for the Benjamins...) makes absolutely no sense.

And tell me too: why would Hennessey go to all the trouble of arranging the murder of Ames' wife, bringing Ames to Terminal Island and reviving Frankenstein only to introduce a vehicle that could kill him off before he's made it Stage Three?

I understand it is widely-accepted to trash and bash director Paul W.S. Anderson. I know he's not popular with Fan Boys. Personally, I'm no hater. I'm a staunch defender of his Event Horizon (1997), and -- mea culpa -- I even enjoyed many aspects of his Soldier (1998), primarily Kurt Russell's central performance. I don't believe Anderson is the Anti-Christ or anything like that.

On the other hand, Anderson totally botched AVP (2004) -- a venture that should have been a slam dunk, given the pedigree of the Alien and Predator franchises. And now he brings us this tepid, empty-headed Death Race remake.

To (misquote) Oscar Wilde: To destroy one popular franchise may be regarded as a misfortune; to destroy two looks like carelessness...


  1. Anonymous8:41 AM

    I love it when you're mean.

  2. I'm still interested in seeing this (mainly because it looks loopy). Not sure where I read it--hell, could have been this very blog--but I am interested in Jason Statham's films and star persona...somehow, he has managed to become the only non-ironic or wholly (intentionally) comedic British action star of his generation. In fact, I can't think of another British actor mainly known for action. Wait, Vinnie Jones. But he tends toward horror and somewhat campy roles. Perhaps the theatrical/Shakespearean tradition is out the door?