A film review by Craig J. Koban

DEATH RACE  jjj

2008, R, 105 mins.

Jenson: Jason Statham / Hennessey: Joan Allen / Coach: Ian McShane / Machine Gun Joe: Tyrese Gibson / Case : Natalie Martinez / Pachenko: Max Ryan

Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.

I very 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.  

You 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. 

In a 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. 

Of 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.

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 futuristic now, 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.

The 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 (Tyrese 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. 

DEATH 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.

And…yes…there’s 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 shown off 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 film. 

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?

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