Death Race

Universal Pictures
Paul W.S. Anderson / USA 2008

Death Race is the cinematic equivalent of running your fingernails down a chalkboard — a chaotic, adrenaline infused, unintelligible noisemaker in which every image is crafted to look cool at the expense of actually being cool.

Death Race takes place in a near future in which the economy has bottomed out, crime has skyrocketed and corporations now run prisons for profit. Actually, it sounds a lot like the present day to me. Jason Statham is Jensen Ames, a steel worker and former race car driver who is framed for killing his wife and thrown into prison on Terminal Island. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The prison, built on a concrete strip surrounded by water on all sides, may be a cesspool of depravity, but it hardly looks worse than the outside world, a futurescape reminiscent of Blade Runner.

In prison, Ames is introduced to Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Less overseer and more producer, Hennessey runs the most popular pay-per-view show on TV. “Death Race” is the ultimate in extreme sport, a live kill-or-be-killed pursuit around the man-made island in vehicles modified with steel armor and heavy weaponry. Hennessey gives Ames an offer he can’t refuse: either he dons the mask of the mythical racer Frankenstein — a crowd favorite who seems impossible to kill — or rot in his cell for the rest of his life. As added incentive, Hennessey promises Ames his freedom should he be victorious.

As Ames is thrust into the gladiatorial gauntlet that is the Death Race, he discovers that his presence on Terminal Island is no accident. Intent on boosting “Death Race’s” ratings, Hennessey had Ames’ wife murdered and arranged for him to be delivered to her to serve his conviction. The only question is: will Ames survive the oil and blood soaked arena long enough to wreak his revenge?

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is one of Hollywood’s most consistent directors — he can always be counted on to make a terrible movie. Channeling his inner Michael Bay, Anderson has made an earsplitting, dim-witted, incomprehensible mess of a movie that plagiarizes everything from Mad Max and The Running Man to The Shawshank Redemption. Death Race may be the first Roger Corman film anyone has actually thought to remake. But while there was considerably more time and money thrown at this version than the 1975 original, the ferociously bad b-movie mantel still rests comfortably on its shoulders.

You’d think Death Race would be perfectly poised to act as a commentary about the worldwide audience’s consumption of extreme, televised violence but instead the film becomes the thing necessitating the commentary, not the commentary itself. Even if Anderson had the desire to examine a larger social issue, he has not the skill to see it through.

I get why Jason Statham is here (he’s a Teflon actioneer who somehow remains beloved no matter the claptrap he chooses to star in), but what Joan Allen is doing hanging around the set is beyond me. Ian McShane (Deadwood), as Ames’ pit boss, is the only actor to rise above the terrible script and make Anderson’s words sound remotely believable. Natalie Martinez, cast as Statham’s navigator, can’t act her way out of a wet paper bag, but then again she was hired for…other assets.

About the only good thing you can say about Death Race is that you’ll never be bored. But then again, you could say the same thing about water-boarding.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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