STARRING: Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke

2008, Unknown Minutes, Directed by:
Paul W.S. Anderson

Mmmmmm… it tastes like sleaze.

It's easy to get huffy and indignant about Death Race. There's so much for respectable film-goers to hate: a big-budge remake of a true grindhouse classic, a lot of gratuitous violence, a giant studio trying to be hip for the kids, and the pretence of genuine social commentary undone by the way legitimate issues are exploited for cheap thrills. Strong arguments, one and all. And yet in some very tangible way, they miss the point. Death Race is supposed to revel in meaningless sadism. It's supposed to parlay important questions into ham-fisted button-pushing. It's supposed to be cheap and tacky and brazenly exploitative. Complaining about all that is like critiquing Snow White for being a cartoon or Yellow Submarine for being full of Beatles songs. Death Race is exactly what its creators wanted it to be and exactly what fans of quick, dirty thrills expect. Those inclined to other pursuits have plenty of warning to stay away.

On the other hand, this new version of 1975's Death Race 2000 loses a great deal of its predecessor's soul . Director Paul Bartel infused puckish iconoclasm into his original drive-in quickie, complete with cartoonish pro-wrestling-style drivers engaged in its cheerfully violent cross-country car race. "Iconoclastic" doesn't exactly fit director Paul W.S. Anderson, who helms the updated version as a cog in the NBC-Universal machine. It's clankier, grittier, and ostensibly more plausible: corporate product through and through, right down to the "don't try this at home" warning just before the final credits. It doesn't even have joyful bits of naughtiness like Euthanasia Day… and if you don't have Euthanasia Day, you really don't have Death Race, do you?

"It ain't Shakespeare, but carries an agreeable kick . . ."

Again, however, that signpost is well-lit and while this new version lacks the charm of its predecessor, it still makes good use of a very serviceable idea. The race this time takes place on an island prison in the near future. With the U.S. economy in collapse and gladiatorial blood sports on the rise (a not-so-subtle dig at the film's intended audience), the corporate forces running the penal system hit upon a brilliant notion.

They rig hot rods with machine guns, place condemned prisoners behind the wheel, and let them strafe their way around a track for the chance to earn their freedom. It becomes a pay-per-view sensation, overseen by the prison's ice queen warden (a gloriously slumming Joan Allen) and maintained by colorful driver/inmates like Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). When former stock-car racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, the warden sees an opportunity to keep the franchise in the pink. Fan-favorite Frankenstein was killed in the most recent race, but he always wore a mask and no one knew what he looked like. With a little prodding, Ames can don the same get-up and return Frankenstein to the Death Race circuit.

As satire, it's supremely po-faced and Anderson's crude swipes at our current economic woes never reflect the courage of his convictions. He does much better with the kinetic mayhem of the races themselves--chopped up by blink-and-you'll-miss-it editing, but infused with the kind of raw energy that comes from using proper stunt work alongside the green screens. Death Race adds a few interesting kinks to its central gimmick, which keeps the endless demolition derbies from becoming repetitive. Statham has carved a nice little niche for himself in the B-movie universe, and his appealing mixture of toughness and sympathy gives us a viable rooting interest amid all the cardboard characters. Ian McShane chimes in too as his unflappable mechanic Coach, and while this work is clearly beneath someone like Allen, she sports a perennial twinkle in her eye reminding would-be critics to lighten the hell up.

Beyond that, Death Race goes nowhere gloriously fast, tossing out loads of horrible people for Ames to snuff and skating on the contrived notion that somehow the rigged game he's playing can be beaten. It ain't Shakespeare, but carries an agreeable kick and the film's grimy post-industrial atmosphere has a stark simplicity which becomes endearing after awhile. The potential for a genuinely great action movie glimmers somewhere in there too, tough to spot but tantalizing when it appears. It's enough to remind us how much further this concept might have gone were the filmmakers not perfectly happy wallowing in the sewers. Those prepared to join them down there will find plenty of amoral diversions to spice things up. August was made for movies like Death Race.

You don't have to like it, but you can't fault it for being true to its nature: as guilty a pleasure as you're likely to find.

- Rob Vaux


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