Friday, January 29, 2010

Death Race

Has Paul W.S. Anderson ever done anything good?

Let me answer my own question. No. No, Paul W.S. Anderson has never done anything good. And I should know, I’ve seen far more of his work than any sane human being ever should. Just so you have a frame of reference, I’ve seen all of the current Resident Evil movies in the theater. That is where I’m coming from. The only things in his cannon that don’t piss me off are Event Horizon, which is just barely meh, and Soldier, only because of the participation of ultra man, Kurt Russell.

Seriously, Paul W.S. Anderson, quit it, the world doesn’t need another videogame movie. Okay, the world doesn’t need another movie based on a video game, videogame movies like Wizard and Joysticks are way freaking sweet and the world most certainly does need more of them. But not your kind of video game movie.

He managed to fuck up both the Alien and Predator franchises in a single volley of cinematic crapulence.

Around the turn of the millennium I began to hear rumbles that Fuckstick, as he shall hence be known, had been trying to remake the 1975 classic Death Race 2000. My initial reaction was, they sure as fuck better keep the “euthanasia day at the old folks home” scene. (They didn’t.) Those rumors quickly dissipated and I didn’t give it another thought until years later when I stumbled across a trailer for something called Death Race, something that looked suspiciously like a remake of the previously mentioned film.

It finally happened. Sigh.

The remake, cleverly titled Death Race, stars Jason Statham. Of course it stars Jason Statham. He’s the guy you get to star in your movie when you can’t get a real badass. I don’t even hate the man, there are even times when I find him charming and personable. What I do hate is that he reminds me of the current state of action cinema and the complete lack of true badasses. Gone is the heyday of the badass. Seagal is a bloated reality TV star. Schwarzenegger is busy playing politician. Heston and Bronson are dead and buried. Where are this generations Steve McQueens and Ben Gazarras?

Lee Marvin, where have you gone?

Stallone still has moments where he keeps it pretty real. Rambo was awesome, but I’ll see how The Expendables holds up before make a final decision on that matter. My point is that true cinematic badassery is a rare thing indeed these days.

So, Statham plays Jensen Ames (this is the role originally played by David Carradine), who is named after a car, which they take great pains to tell us over and over again. Ames has a checkered past, but he is good at heart, which we wouldn’t have known unless his wife made sure to tell us. Also he is a former kickass racecar driver. Remember that fact, it will be important later.

The plot of Death Race is essentially Running Man with cars. The world has gone to shit. The economy tanked, crime grew to an uncontrollable level, private corporations took over prisons, and the police are the corrupt puppets of said corporations. In order to quell the masses, entertainment has become increasingly violent, culminating in the eponymous “Death Race,” where heavily armed cars driven by convicts compete against each other in a grueling, three-staged race. Imagine a post-apocalyptic NASCAR. I’m not too proud to admit that I would probably watch this. If the inmates win five races, they win their freedom. So far, no one has won five races.

Ames is framed for the murder of his wife, and winds up in Terminal Island Prison. Subtle, huh? There he meets Coach (Ian McShane), the obligatory wise old guy who has been there forever, knows the ropes, has a serious man-voice and furrowed brow, and can read a man just by looking at him. He also meets Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen slumming it), who has an interesting proposition for him. The most popular “Death Race” racer, Frankenstein, a man so disfigured by crashing his car that he wears a mask, has died, unbeknownst to the public. All Ames has to do is wear a mask, pretend to be Frankenstein, win one more race, and he will be set free. Sound familiar?

Of course the game is rigged against him, so it won’t be easy, but along with the help of his sexy lady sidekick (Natalie Martinez), Coach, the chubby stuttering kid, and Tyrese as Machine Gun Joe (originally played by Stallone), he manages to exact revenge, get justice for his murdered wife, reclaim his baby daughter, and generally tie everything up in an obnoxiously happy ending.

Death Race has pretensions to be something more than it is. It wants to believe it says something about corporate control, a privatized prison system, and the escalating level of violence in entertainment and society. That is what it wants to be. What it is is a mediocre action movie. Though I guess, considering the rest of Fuckstick’s work, mediocre is about the best we can hope for out of him. If you’re looking for a movie that makes a comment about the spectacle of primetime violence and such, watch Running Man, or even The Condemned. (Yes, that Condemned, the one produced by the WWE and staring Stone Cold Steve Austin—it is surprisingly better than anyone expected it to be.) Death Race is really nothing more than what it pretends to decry, a spectacle of violence.

All of that said, Death Race is better than I expected it to be. Fuckstick tries to cram in too much predicable plot—there are no surprises anywhere in this movie, though it tries. Of course the guy who killed his wife is in prison with Ames, of course they’re not going to let him out, and of course, he’s going to find a way to escape despite all of the standard obstacles. On top of that, the race scenes are too long, and too predictable.

Even with the jittery zoom in/zoom out camera work, the hackneyed plot, the pretention to importance, the so-so action, and despite being about twenty-five minutes too long, there is something mildly watchable about Death Race. It is not good, but it is better than I expected, and it is vaguely fun to watch. Considering how I feel about Fuckstick, his body of work, and the movie in front of me, that’s about a good a review as I think I’m capable of giving.

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