The Action Mutant…
only imagines if Vince McMahon had the PPV numbers the “Death Race” gets!
review by Joe Burrows
So, Death Race is the 2008 remake/re-imagining of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, which (in turn) was inspired by that same year’s Rollerball. Oddly enough, that film was (poorly) remade in 2002; a rare misfire by Die Hard auteur John McTiernan. It also probably didn’t help that the movie was re-edited from an R to PG-13 in order for “broader audience appeal” (and yet, one of the things cut was a nude scene by Rebecca Romijin-Stamos. Go figure, I guess). It was so bad that LL Cool J stated the film sucked when he was on Late Night with Conan O’Brien many years later. Of course, the high point in the flick for me was pro wrestling guru Paul Heyman’s bellowing “It’s time to play…RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLERBALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!” I’m sure I’ll review the latter version of Rollerball one day…you know if I get really plastered or lose a bet or something.
The point: Needless remakes prompt equally needless banter about them.
The Plot, as it was:
Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife & sent to Terminal Island Prison. While there, he is given an interesting proposition by ice queen warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) that is just slightly better than the propositions you usually get in prisons! The main income for the prison (and the corporations that run the country’s prisons, since the economy has fallen on hard times) is the “Death Race”, the most popular sport in the world. Hosting the race for broadcast via internet paysite, Hennessey has run into a snag as Frankenstein, the Race’s hero (with cameo voice work by David Carradine), was killed during his most recent run-in with “Machine Gun” Joe Mason (Tyrese Gibson). Hennessey convinces Ames to don the Frankenstein garb by stating he might win his freedom if he wins the upcoming Race. Aided by sexy navigator Case (Natalie Martinez) & a pit crew led by the hard bitten Coach (Ian McShane of Deadwood fame), Ames must survive a race that is controlled by Hennessey’s whims and motives, which can change by the second.
Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Despite my rant above, Death Race is not the unmitigated disaster one might have thought it would be. If it has anything at all going for it, it is that it was penned & directed by Sci-Fi/Horror genre favorite Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil trilogy, Event Horizon), who has proven that he can do blood, guts & atmosphere with the best of them. However, if one is expecting an inkling of the satiric edge that accompanied Death Race 2000…well, it’s just not going to be there. In fact, aside from the use of a few character names & the basic concept of the race being a “death sport”, Death Race is not at all like its predecessor. Whereas the mayhem was put against the backdrop of DR2K, mayhem is all Death Race has to rest against. The story is fairly thin and that means there is a lot of blood to try to compensate for it. It all looks stylish & grim, as per usual from P.W.S.A so if you’re just looking for a loud, brutal good time, the movie satisfies on that front. Statham gives his obligatory Eastwood-by-English Bob, tough guy performance & Allen does as much as she can with the worn, “authoritative villain” routine. McShane is one of the few beacons of light here, reveling in being the hard, old salt (though that means slightly less swears than he would encompass as Al Swearengen). The angle that is taken with Gibson’s MGJ Mason (he’s gay & prisoners fight for the right to be his navigator, though most of them end up dead) is the most interesting thing about his character, as there’s not much else to it. Everyone else just drives their supped-up vehicles & looks tough right through to the finale, which includes one of those instances where a villain turns into a good guy in order to move the story along, despite everything the villain was about going against such a turn. Slap on the requisite “happy ending” & that’s exactly what encapsulates Death Race as a whole; though it doesn’t intend to reinvent the wheel, one would expect some attempts at something inspired. Ok, the hyping of the races amused me because it was straight out of a wrestling/MMA ad but that was about it.
Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- Though he’s technically not in the film, horror cinema critic John Fallon (aka "The Arrow") is credited as a Neo Nazi (his scene was left on the cutting room floor).
Body Count/Violence: 28. The amount of time spent on cultivating the video game-like violence in Death Race must have been 10x longer than time spent on anything else. Along with the loads of bullets fired and cars crashing left & right, there’s impaling, car and body crushing, decapitation, neck snapping, gutting, explosions, beatings, torching, stabbing, razor cutting, etc. Things are quite bloody & brutal but edited at a quick pace so stuff isn’t lingered upon much.
Sexuality/Nudity: Male ass in the shower. There’s a scene where all of the female navigators emerge from a bus, looking all hot & sexy and we get…male ass in the shower.
Language/Dialogue: Strong at times, with Allen getting the line of the film: “Ok, cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!” Apparently, your degree of freedom is determined by being able to defecate onto the street. I was not aware of this.
How bad was it?:
As critically maligned as DR2K was, it at least has cult classic status going for it. Not many free passes going about for this one, even from genre fans. Ebert lambasted this as much as the previous one, stating that this one was so much like a video game that he was wondering when the movie was going to start. Ouch!
Did it make the studio’s day?:
Like one of its spectacular crashes, Death Race flamed out before it got a chance to regain itself. Universal released the $45 million speedster on 8/22/08 and only racked up $12.6 million for a 3rd place finish (behind Tropic Thunder & The House Bunny). Well, at least it beat The Dark Knight…though it was in its 6th week in theaters. It stayed steady in the top 15 for about a month before it sank out of sight. Earning $36.1 million in the states to date (plus $23.4 million overseas), it was last in the top 100 at #41 on 10/10/08. I don’t expect any miracles but there’s always DVD.
Entertainment value: ***1/2/*****
Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.