Friday, September 12, 2008

I enjoyed this race! Can I have more?

Three-time speedway champion Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is an expert at survival in the harsh landscape that has become our country. Just as he thinks he has turned his life around, the ex-con is framed for a gruesome murder he didn’t commit. Forced to don the mask of the mythical driver Frankenstein—a crowd favorite who seems impossible to kill—Ames is given an easy choice by Terminal Island’s warden (Joan Allen): suit up or rot away in a cell. His face hidden by a metallic mask, one convict will be put through an insane three-day challenge. Ames must survive a gauntlet of the most vicious criminals in the country’s toughest prison to claim the prize of freedom. Driving a monster car outfitted with machine guns, flamethrowers and grenade launchers, one desperate man will destroy anything in his path to win the most twisted spectator sport on Earth. This is Death Race.
The Roger Corman-produced cult favorite DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) gets an update in this reworking from action director Paul W.S. Anderson (RESIDENT EVIL). In a role sure to please fans of his work in CRANK (2006) and the TRANSPORTER films, Jason Statham is Frankenstein, the fierce driver portrayed by David Carradine in the original. The script, also by Anderson, largely does away with the original's satirical elements in favor an increased number of breathtaking crashes and stunt driving. In 2012, the American economy has collapsed, and prisons have been taken over by corporations. Overseen by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), Terminal Island prison generates immense amounts of revenue with pay-per-view broadcasts of "Death Race," in which inmates participate in an auto race where anything goes. New inmate Jensen Ames (Statham), who has been framed for the death of his wife, is chosen to take over the role of Frankenstein, the contest's recently deceased masked star driver. His chief competitor, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), unaware that a new man is behind the mask of his old rival, will stop at nothing to win. With Case, a sexy navigator from the nearby women's facility, and a trusty pit crew led by wise veteran Coach (Ian McShane), Ames has a good shot at winning. If he does, he's been promised his freedom---but the race holds more obstacles than he can imagine, and ratings are more important to Hennessey than being true to her word. Loud, gory, and lightning fast, DEATH RACE is geared to the video game generation, right down to the graphics that appear onscreen during the race's TV broadcast. Once again, Statham creates a great hero to root for in a performance that rises above the copious stunts and visual effects. Allen, in uncharacteristic role, is suitably imposing as the steely warden. There are plenty of deaths, with prisoners machine-gunning each other from their Mad Max-style cars. Expect anything more road taxing and you’ll be disappointed. But Jason Statham, above, can talk the torque as former racing driver Jensen Ames, who is forced into the Death Race after being fitted up for his wife’s murder. And Natalie Martinez, as his co-driver Case, knows how to wear a pair of hotpants. Death Race is all muscle, no fat. Anderson and his exceptional cast tell their tightly built story and get out of the way. Needless to say, the film’s story is ludicrous. The story was dumb back in 1975, and adding an updated post credits interlude to bring the thing up to date doesn’t make it seem any more cerebral. Trying to count the plot holes and logic problems in this film would be harder than trying to count to a billion, but to the film’s credit, it doesn’t care. Death Race occasionally flirts with logic (explaining how the warden controls the weapons on the cars in order to prevent the drivers from turning the cars on the guards, for example) but at the end of the day, Anderson (who also wrote the screenplay) isn’t about to let logic get in the way of big explosions and opportunities for Jason Statham to do shirtless pull-ups. Instead, the film takes the exploitation film vibe of the original and cleans it up a bit for mass consumption and just runs with it. I’m cool with that. The main reason the film works as well as it does is because Anderson and company have managed to assemble a surprisingly good cast. I’ll admit it—I’ll watch anything Jason Statham is in at this point. I don’t know if it’s the British accent or what, but the guy makes everything he’s in better than it actually has any right to be. Death Race is no exception. Truthfully, Jensen Ames could just be Statham’s character from the Transporter films doing a stint in jail—there’s not much to distinguish the performancecs—but I find myself not caring. The guy has onscreen charisma by the truckload. He’s the closest thing to an action star we have working today (and unlike Vin Diesel he hasn’t tried to do family flicks or comedy). No one will ever mistake Death Race as a classic example of American cinema—and I’m sure everyone involved in its creation is okay with that. While the film is loud and crass and over-the-top, that’s all it ever aspired to be. In this regard, it’s a success. If you’re looking for a mindless action film to kill ninety minutes of your life and give you some thrills and a few things to cheer about, you could do far worse than Death Race. I highly recommend this mindless fun movie. Sit back and enjoy the Death Race. A 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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