Death Race
So, if I go to prison, I get to race cars with her? Crime rates are going to jump.

Theatrical Release Date: 08/22/2008
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez

I’d start this review by railing against Hollywood’s OCD when it comes to remaking films rather than finding original scripts to produce but after years of virtual yelling, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t do much good (like voting for a third party in a Presidential election).

As such, I’ll just get on with my review of “Death Race” (based on Roger Corman’s “Death Race 2000”). Having not seen the original since sometime in the late 80’s, I can’t remember just how off the beaten path Paul W.S. Anderson careens this vehicular monstrosity but the saddest thing is how apropos making a film like this is in today’s society.

Now, I’m not going to go all out and say that this is some prophetic vision in the vein of George Orwell’s 1984. However, the similarity between the overly-hedonistic ways of our society and that of Rome right before it fall is obvious and this film is a multi-million dollar example of both how and why we are coming dangerously close to the precipice.

In this modern update to the Corman original, everyone’s favorite driver, Jason Statham, is framed for the murder of his wife and imprisoned in a maximum security facility … which oh so coincidentally is where the very popular and profitable pastime of broadcasting inmates racing cars inside the complex in a no-holds barred setting takes place.

The prison is run by Joan Allen, an amazing actress who is either here to make a paycheck to allow for more independent feature work or because she just felt like playing a badass and getting the chance to be a villain. Whatever the motivation, her talents lend themselves brilliantly to making her character more than just a cliché and breathe life into elements of the film that would otherwise have flown like a lead balloon.

Helping Statham keep his car running are Ian McShane, Jacob Vargas and Frederick Koehler. McShane is the wily old sage that imparts wisdom and spouts witty one-liners like they were going out of style. The weight and presence that he provides keeps this from becoming tiresome and is again a very good casting choice.

There’s also a healthy dose of Tyrese Gibson who plays the main rival to Statham. The manner in which he deals with his co-pilots is one of the few truly comedic elements of the film (other points are laughable but probably not intentionally so). While a drowsy armadillo with a limited grasp of the English language could fulfill the needs of a role like this, I have a soft spot for Tyrese’s hammy acting and he brings a playful energy to this role that helps lighten up the otherwise gloomy tone of the project.

Speaking of good casting choices, a key element of the races is that a teammate is provided to each driver – to help work the weapons and navigate the course. Instead of simply teaming up inmates, ridiculously attractive female prisoners are bused in to help drive up the broadcast ratings. This very well may be the tipping point that kept me on the good side of the film. Statham’s partner, Natalie Martinez, would make a blind man blush and certain elements of my Freudian psyche can only hope this isn’t the last we see of her on film.

“Acting” aside, the action is on the brutal side – though I’m becoming so desensitized that it takes another person to point these things out usually. In speaking with Elizabeth Edgemont, she was perturbed at the number of parents who brought children under 10 to see this film. It is rated R, contains quite a few words of the impolite kind and a number of people get killed and hurt in rather glorious fashion. This satisfies my inappropriate need for violence but seeing as I’m purportedly an adult, I’m allowed to make these kinds of rash decisions.

Bringing a young child to a rated R film called “Death Race” can only mean that you either don’t care about their brain development or are so oblivious to the effects this may have that my desire to see child-rearing become a licensed affair is only more justified. Just because you get a pass to see a free film doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire a babysitter or drop the kid off at his grandparents. Not only that, chances are that your kid’s going to make noise or run around during the film and distract me … which is really all that I care about.

Back to the automotive coliseum, surprisingly one of the worst elements of the film is the car racing. So much of it is done in tight, quick-cutting camera shots, not allowing the audience to take in the whole picture; probably all in an effort to allow for what appears to be one long stunt sequence to be done in many different parts. There are some fun sequences and moderately inventive/amusing deaths but I expect more from a film entitled “Death Race”.

Not surprisingly, probably the worst element of the film is the script. There are more plot holes and continuity issues in the film than you can shake a stick at, which didn’t take me by surprise … but it seemed like another pass or two at the screenplay might have been a good idea. Thankfully, this isn’t the kind of film one goes to in order to get the full David Mamet experience so as long as your brain is dimmed down to the appropriate level, you won’t care one way or the other about this issue.

Putting all the pieces together and looking back on it, I’m surprised by how much I don’t care to rip the film apart. I’m not saying this sets a new standard of action or does anything particularly well (aside from a fantastic profanity laced monologue by Joan Allen). However, if all you want is a mindless diversion (and really, check your brain at the door), then “Death Race” fits the bill and I’ll give it a solid 3 out of 5.

It’s obviously one of those guilty pleasure films and one look at the trailer is all it takes to let you know exactly what kind of experience you’re going to get. You either want that or you don’t and either way, it probably doesn’t matter. In a few weeks, people will forget this even existed and it will either be a footnote of moderate violence imprinted inside their cerebral cortex … or it won’t. Man, is that a recommendation or what?