Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Stars: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson
I’m just going to say upfront that I am NOT a fan of Paul W.S. Anderson’s work – not even a casual admirer of his filmography. Ever since that stupid Mortal Kombat movie that started his career I’ve pretty much hated everything that Anderson has done. I’ve never been motivated about his Resident Evil films, Alien Vs Predator was a terrible and boring attempt at fan service and his The Three Musketeers movie just looked like the worst possible re-imagining of the novel I’ve ever seen. Sure he has a fan base and most of the films he makes cater to that group of people and I’m sure their pleased with whatever their idol produces. In that regard Paul W.S. Anderson does a decent job of connecting with his target audience of fans – an audience I’m not really a part of. However, he did do this remake of Death Race 2000 which irked me to no end. After all, one of my least favorite filmmakers was trying his hand at redoing one of my favorite films – I was bound to be pissed off about this. I’ve avoided watching this movie for 4 years now but, with it being Dystopia Month on the site, the time has inevitably come to put my bias aside and give this movie a serious, open-minded viewing.
Ex-con and former professional race car driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is trying to get through life as a typical blue-collar family man. He’s got a lovely wife and kid and is trying to leave his rough past behind him. The factory he works for has gone out of business and he accepts this with very little incident and avoids joining the violent protesters even though he has every reason to. However his life is shattered when a masked assailant breaks into his home, murders his wife and Jensen is framed for the crime. For this crime, Jensen is sent to the notirious prison known as Terminal Island – home of the Death Race.
Similar to Death Race 2000 – the Death Race here is a major televised event spanning three days. However, this isn’t a cross-country challenge like in the original film. This race is confined to Terminal Island and instead of killing innocent pedestrians the racers here are out to kill each other. The most frequent champion of these races has been the fan favorite Frankenstein. Unfortunately he died during the last race and the warden of Terminal Island (Joan Allen) forcibly recruits Jensen to be the next Frankenstein. Just like in Death Race 2000 the public doesn’t know that there has never really been just one person named Frankenstein. Unlike Death Race 2000 which had a government based dystopia, the dystopia in Death Race is purely corporate based. The Death Race isn’t held because it is an American tradition meant to entertain a blind and subjugated populace – it is all about money and ratings. This is a pay-per-view event and the more flash and crowd appeal the warden can generate for this event the more money she makes.
A little bit about the characters. Frankenstein/Jensen Ames is a pretty typical role for Statham and he does it in the typically awesome Statham way. There really is nothing in this character that Jason Statham hasn’t done before in a dozen other films. In fact Statham’s popularity as an action star is rather underutilized here as he spends most of the movie driving a car and the most action he gets to do there is angrily shifting gears. Tyrese Gibson plays Machine Gun Joe but doesn’t even attempt to capture the same kind of passion and fun that Stallone originally brought to that role. The rest of the characters are simply the usual stock characters that can be found in ANY action film, in fact I’m pretty sure most of these archetypes come from The Fast & The Furious and its sequels and clones. All of the other racers are simply outlandish characters that die off long after they’ve served their purpose. However there is one character that I particularly enjoyed and that was the warden – played with over-the-top camp appeal by Joan Allen. Her character is cruel, manipulative and, like any ideal villain, selfishly motivated by one purpose; in this case television ratings. Throughout the film she constantly shows an aversion to foul language and obscenity but when things aren’t going her way towards the end of the film she shouts out this great line:
“Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk.”
While most of the characters and the film’s basic premise come from Death Race 2000, this film takes those concepts to a different extreme and ends up being too over-the-top for its own good. For instance, it is not simply enough to have a race where people drive armored cars and try to kill each other – that would be too basic for Paul W.S. Anderson it seems. Instead the track is littered with special power-ups called Swords and Shields and even death traps called Death Heads. Driving over these icons and the car receives the desired effect. Clearly this was made by a person who has played more than their fare share of Twisted Metal games. It doesn’t stop there either – there are some many needlessly complicated rules that it draws away from the action and seems like these are just plot devices thrown in because Paul Anderson didn’t feel competent telling a story using the characters and situation he was given. There is even a point where the warden unleashes some behemoth of an armored vehicle on the track just to “spice things up.” All these things serve are just to drag action scenes along, they are nothing but flashy set pieces with no substance behind them and add absolutely nothing to the story.
Death Race could have kept some potential as an action film if it didn’t try to be a remake of the 1975 cult classic. Trying to look past the remake stigma, however, there really isn’t a lot that Death Race offers. It’s loud and abrasive – it’s all special effects and video-game style glamor with very little story. Most of the cast are simply people in cars without any sort of individual personality as every actor is completely under-utilized. Anybody could have been in this movie. Why bother paying for somebody like Jason Statham if you’re just gonna stick him behind the wheel of a car and have him recite boring one-liners? Anybody could do that. The movie is fun to look at and kill a few hours on an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon and that’s about it. Death Race is quickly forgettable and doesn’t even offer enough to keep action junkies motivated. Everything about it is cliched and tedious and the only positive thing I can say about it is that Joan Allen was entertaining.
There is a direct-to-DVD sequel, Death Race 2, which is apparently also a prequel. Not directed by Paul W.S. Anderson it’s produced by him. I’m not looking forward to watching it at all but I’m going to have to and will, inevitably, have something posted about Death Race 2 by this weekend. In fact, it is a direct-to-DVD release that is probably crap – I might be able to get an episode of ‘Antisocial Commentary’ out of it.