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"DEATH RACE"
(2008) (Jason Statham, Joan Allen) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: Prisoners of the near future participate in a televised, closed-course road race -- complete with machine guns, napalm and explosives -- where the object is to kill everyone else in order to cross the finish line.
PLOT:
It's the year 2012 and private corporations have taken over the country's prisons, turning them into for-profit entities, mainly through the form of pay-per-view televised gladiator style fights. Yet, the public has become bored with that, and thus Warden Hennessey (JOAN ALLEN) has concocted the three-day, three-stage Death Race on the Terminal Island Penitentiary grounds.

In it, hand-picked prisoners drive heavily armed and armored cars on a closed-course where Hennessey or her head guard, Ulrich (JASON CLARKE), can deactivate any of the weapons at their discretion, all to boost ratings and thus paying public subscribers to their offering. There's only one problem, however, as the most popular driver, the masked Frankenstein, died in the last race against his chief rival, Machine Gun Joe (TYRESE GIBSON).

Of course, his demise has been kept secret, but Hennessey has a backup plan and driver in mind. He's unemployed steel mill worker -- and former race car driver -- Jensen Ames (JASON STATHAM) who, along with his wife, is attacked by a masked man and then framed for her murder. Now imprisoned on Terminal Island, Jensen gets an offer from Hennessey: Pretend to be Frankenstein, and if he wins that character's fifth such race, he'll earn his freedom. But if he tries to blow the whistle on this subterfuge, he'll never see his infant daughter again.

Jensen reluctantly agrees and is paired with Frankenstein's pit crew, prison veteran Coach (IAN McSHANE) and grease monkeys Gunner (JACOB VARGAS) and Lists (FREDERICK KOEHLER), as well as Case (NATALIE MARTINEZ), his sexy, shotgun-riding navigator.

From that point on and after realizing he was set up by Hennessey, Jensen does what he can to get his revenge, all while having to contend with driving against the likes of Pachenko (MAX RYAN), Travis Colt (JUSTIN MADER), Grimm (ROBERT LaSARDO) and 14K (ROBIN SHOU), not to mention Machine Gun Joe who's figuratively and literally gunning to defeat him.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Let's face it, far too many people continue to die every year in car wrecks, yet cars are supposedly safer than ever before. Of course, there are more drivers traveling more miles than in the past. And while advanced seat belts, multiple airbags and even the inclusion of race car type roll cages in some models are all great pieces of safety equipment, older vehicles had a few things going for them, namely size and lots of steel. Heck, as kids many decades ago, we played down in the foot wells and rode in the center of the front seat, with the lap belts firmly buried in the crease, and without any worry about our safety.

Nowadays, kids are strapped in to an inch of their breathing capacity, all of which, of course, is a good and smart thing, but cars are made of plastic and are getting smaller (thanks to a shrinking economy), meaning drivers should pay heed to the laws of physics more than ever before.

But if the near-future vehicles in "Death Race" are any indication, we might be reverting back to steel, size and gas-guzzling muscle-cars. Which I suppose is appropriate since the film (set in 2012) is a remake of sorts of "Death Race 2000," the 1975 Roger Corman produced "B" movie where the future sport of the land was mowing down people with cars for points. Campy and ultra violent for its day, it became something of a cult favorite, not only due to the subject matter, but also because it starred David "Kung Fu" Carradine and a bit-actor who became famous a year latter penning and starring in "Rocky."

With the current craze regarding reality shows on TV, some might see this equally if not more violent update as a satirical indictment of such programming. After all, the driving over kids and the elderly for points in the original has been replaced by pay-per-view footage from the metaphorically named Terminal Island Penitentiary where prisoners race around the grounds (oddly fashioned like an abandoned mill factory town), blasting each other with heavy-duty machine guns, napalm, missiles and such.

There are no airbags here, just heavily reinforced steel armor (not to mention nerves of the same metal), and the last man left alive who makes it over the finish line of the three-day "race" gets one step closer to his freedom (five wins and you're out). Not surprisingly, the "show" is quite popular and rakes in millions of dollars for the warden (the odd and horribly cast Joan Allen, apparently slumming it for a paycheck -- she couldn't have signed on for the quality of the script -- and chewing up the scenery at every possible turn).

Any such satirical intentions, however, have easily taken a backseat to the wanton violence, carnage and hard-hitting action courtesy of writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson who hasn't made a decent film since "Event Horizon" back in '97 (since then he's helmed the likes of "Resident Evil" and "AVP: Alien vs. Predator"). His direction is near hack-quality here, with the mediocre drama at least not ending up over-edited and horribly shot like the action and car race scenes. The script -- particularly the dialogue -- is even worse, especially concerning the dialogue that rolls from the performers' lips like so much engine gunk.

Anderson's one saving grace is the presence of Jason Statham, the always reliable "B" grade movie action star who can probably now perform such roles in his sleep. Here, he plays an incredibly buff and recently unemployed steel mill factory worker who's set up for his wife's murder so that he'll be sent to Terminal Island where he'll secretly stand in for the recently departed but still popular prison driver known as Frankenstein (named for Carradine's character in the first flick, although he looks far more like Michael "Halloween" Myers, what with the emotionless mask and such). Not surprisingly, he's got a chip on his shoulder, will learn who's responsible, and get his revenge, all while partaking in the violent, closed-course road race.

What's most annoying about the film -- even more so than Allen's presence and botched performance or Anderson's writing and directing -- is that it doesn't fully get down and dirty in its obvious guilty pleasure status. Yes, it occasionally hits the right notes for that, mainly through its shocking and ultra-violent elimination of the various contestants, while Natalie Martinez is present for the obligatory T&A material. Yet, it doesn't gleefully wallow in its excessiveness, something a film such as this should do, particularly for viewers looking for such campy, future cultish material.

The same holds true for the various villainous drivers, with Tyrese Gibson doing little despite getting the most screen time inhabiting Stallone's role from the original. Even Ian McShane can't do much as the prison veteran in a part that one easily could have seen Morgan Freeman playing had he not already done the wise inmate thing years earlier in "The Shawshank Redemption."

Had Anderson and company pressed the tongue-in-cheek pedal firmly to the satirical metal, this might have been a goofy and enjoyable, if ultra-violent offering. As it stands, and despite all of the action, fists, gunfire, explosions and more, "Death Race" ends up just driving in circles, constantly banging into the uninspired barriers of mediocrity before crashing in a heap of bad filmmaking. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 19, 2008 / Posted August 22, 2008


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