A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 105 mins.
2008, R, 105 mins.
Jenson: Jason Statham / Hennessey: Joan Allen / Coach: Ian
McShane / Machine Gun Joe: Tyrese Gibson / Case : Natalie
Martinez / Pachenko: Max Ryan
rarely eat while I am in a movie theatre. I
find that it distracts from the experience of being involved in the film.
However, there are times when I pass by the concession counter
where I find it difficult to stray away from opting out and buying a
big ol’ bag of popcorn drenched with “golden topping” (a euphemism for artery
clogging, heart-attack inducing dressing to add flavor to the already salt-drenched corn). The
funny thing is that I never once question this junk food’s nutritional
value: I know damn well that theatre popcorn has the fat content of about
four Big Macs and that it certainly should not be eaten on a regular
basis, but...by God...it sure tastes agreeably good and is satisfying, despite
my good, common sense pleading with me to the contrary.
DEATH RACE is pure cinematic junk food. The film is rancorously loud, obsessively lowbrow, chaotically violent, cartoonishly brutal and savage, and genuinely lacking in any moral decorum whatsoever because of its wanton disreputability. It’s a wall-to-wall sleaze and schlock fest that pummels viewers with its hyperactive and stomach churning sights and sounds and perpetually seems unfettered by any type of decency and natural logic. There should be no plausible reason to “like” this film…but like a big bag of salty, greasy popcorn, DEATH RACE is so unilaterally tasty and unpardonably enjoyable.
kind of take in all of its sadistic sights and its blood-soaked,
pedal-to-the-metal, high-octane spectacle without ever once thinking about
its health value. This is the
epitome of a mindless, cheap thrill entertainment, but the film
paradoxically shows a real discerning flair for never being pretentious
with its excesses. DEATH RACE
understands what kind of beast it is and never annoyingly trudges away from it: it’s
an unabashedly B-grade, lurid pulp fiction inspired thrill ride that more
than achieves the meager status quo for these types of grindhouse films.
way, going into this film and complaining that it’s barbaric and
psychopathically unhinged and ill mannered is just as foolhardy as
complaining that popcorn is unhealthy. I
knew exactly what I was getting into here, and the film never failed to
adhere to its gratuitous intentions.
course, DEATH RACE also offers up three guilty pleasured genres all in one
full swoop: It’s (1) a rowdy prison film, (2) a road rage flick and (3)
a Jason Statham action vehicle that proudly continues on his legacy as
the master of “Cinema of Incredulity”, coined by one of my friends as
a genre where its movies “...have a laughable and commendable level
of self-awareness about just how improbably outlandish and preposterous
they are at their cores” (for examples, rent CRANK or any of the
TRANSPORTER films). Beyond
that, it is a loving remake and homage to the classic low budget Roger
Corman sci-fi film from 1975 about a futuristic dystopian society where
the public watches a cross-country race that involves competitors getting
points for running over people. Perhaps
one of its more memorable sights was seeing a very young Sylvester
Stallone as Machine Gun Joe and a masked freak named Frankenstein that
engaged in a lot of wicked vehicular manslaughter.
Oh...and did I mention that the drivers in the film got more points for
running over children and the wheelchair-bound elderly.
Oh...and did I mention that the drivers in the film got more points for running over children and the wheelchair-bound elderly.
This new DEATH
RACE borrows heavily from some of the basic elements of Corman's early film
(he actually serves as Executive Producer here) and takes the premise
into new territory. We are long passed 2000, meaning that it now does not seem so
so this new film takes place in the not-to-distant future (2012) where, as
the obligatory title cards tells us, the US economy has been devastated
and that the prison system has been run by wealthy private entrepreneurs.
Corporations run these prisons for profit first and rehabilitation
second. One facility, the
Terminal Island Prison, actually has caged fights between inmates that are
battles to the death and are televised via pay-per-view broadband.
Alas, the fickle crowds grow bored by the repetitiveness of these
events and – low and behold – “Death Race” is born, which is
essentially a race within the prison on a vast track where inmates compete
against one another in heavily shielded and armed muscle cars to see whom
will secure their freedom with a victory.
Oh, rules are pretty much vacant, and killing your opponent in the
most disgusting manner possible is not shunned, but encouraged.
This MAD MAX meets GLADIATOR meets THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, minus the
Tokyo Drifting, of course.
This MAD MAX meets GLADIATOR meets THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, minus the Tokyo Drifting, of course.
prisoners of this DEATH RACE prison are all ruled over by the icy cold
bitch in heels warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen, yes, that Joan Allen, in
what must be her hammiest performance of her illustrious career).
Her rules are simple: win five Death Races and get out of jail for
life, no questions asked. The most popular racer is Frankenstein, but in recent
competition he was killed by the infamously brutal - and man lovin' - Machine Gun Joe
Gibson). However, Hennessy
understands that Frankenstein is a big ratings grab and feels that she can
still keep the character alive (after all, he’s just a man completely
obscured by a mask, so anyone could play the parts).
Her plan is kind of inspired in its unnerving maliciousness and
cruelty: She frames a former race car driver named Jensen Ames (Statham, as
cool, collected, and macho as ever) for the murder of his wife and coerces
him into a lucrative
offer: continue on
Frankenstein’s image and compete in Death Race, win it all, and go free.
Clearly, considering the nature of the sport, this is really,
really easier said than done.
RACE was written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (definitely not to be
confused with Paul Thomas Anderson of THERE WILL BE BLOOD and BOOGIE
NIGHTS fame). At a glance,
his resume does not instill confidence (he has helmed such stinkers as
ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, RESIDENT EVIL, SOLDIER, EVENT HORIZON, and MORTAL
KOMBAT). If there is one
thing he has difficulty with in DEATH RACE it’s staging the film’s
race sequences with clarity (he shoots moments with such a spastic,
annoyingly chaotic, Michael Bay-esque MTV
editorial style that it becomes so fatiguing just to look at: when will
directors understand that the best way to film action is not with a
camera that moves with lightning speed across the frame with cuts
occurring every millisecond?). On
a pure intentions level, however, Anderson hits this one out of the park.
He delivers exactly what the advertising for the film promised,
which is copious amounts of bloodthirsty mayhem and cheerfully macabre and
bone crunching sadism. The
film has an oddly admirable level of perseverant, discombobulated thrills.
Even the race itself is kind of goofy and inspired in its video
game overtones: The cars the
drivers have are armed from bumper to bumper, but the only way drivers can
use them is if they drive over “power ups” that will activate their
armory or weapons. Must admit
– that’s a first for a race.
Again, those that chastise this film as a soulless video game miss the boat altogether. If you want sobering characters, searing dialogue exchanges, and thought-provoking storytelling, see a Merchant-Ivory period film. If you want burning rubber, uber fast cars, a constant stream of bullets blazing and bombs exploding, rough and rugged good and bad guys, and smokin’ hot babes that serve as pure window dressing and very little else, DEATH RACE is required and essential viewing. Also, there is an indescribably sick entertainment value in seeing this film offer up multiple ways to kill a person and trash a car. One moment in particular is actually quite exhilarating when we see two drivers team up to destroy a heavily fortified semi/tank during one of the races.
Jason Statham, who just may becoming the heir apparent to Steve McQueen
for effectively playing sullen, quiet spoken, and tough as nails
anti-heroes with a under-cranked modulation and bravado.
In DEATH RACE his granite-cut façade and low-key magnetism is
in abundance. We also have
Ian McShane as gravel voiced mechanic that beefs up Statham’s
death-giving hot rod with all sorts of despicable toys (he also occupies
one key moment late in the film where he breaks the cinematic fourth wall
and all but winks to the audience, reminding them of the type of film
their viewing). We also get the
unspeakably sultry and sexy Natalie Martinez as Statham’s navigator, who
struts around wearing very little in a smoldering performance that, to
loosely paraphrase Frank Drebbin, could “melt a cheese sandwich from
across the room.” And
finally, we have the typically dignified Joan Allen that camps things up
in spades as the vile, cruel, reprehensibly evil, and potty mouthed Cruella De
Vil of the penal system. One
final moment has her spout out an obscenity laced threat that is
incomprehensibly silly…which I guess is in tune with the rest of the
I know…I know…I should not like a film like this. But it’s hard to break away from its tawdry allure and prolific carnage. There is certainly no dignity in the road-raged slaughterhouse on the senses that is DEATH RACE, but there can be no denying the film’s purity and forthrightness in its focus. Like a bag of popcorn that carries a calorie count north of a thousand, I know that DEATH RACE is no good for me. But, like everyone’s favorite movie going, guilty pleasure munchie, the film is perversely nourishing, and plentiful. A steady diet of these types of films? Nah…wouldn't like that, but once in a blue moon? Hey…where's the harm?