How much serious consideration can one really give to a movie that wants nothing more than to run over a few people with rusty muscle cars before roaring off into the night? Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race is that movie. The film is what it is, and I suppose there is something to be said for that. Not a remake so much as an ill-conceived prequel to Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s satirical Death Race 2000, Anderson’s movie shares no ambitions with it’s namesake. In fact, it appears to have few ambitions, period. The product cut such a flatline across my consciousness that I’m struggling to remember it at all.
That’s as damning a statement as anyone can heave at a movie; I think any filmmaker would infinitely prefer to inspire vitriol and hatred rather than near-total amnesia. And yet, even as my utter lack of recollection with respect to the film’s hyper-masculine collection of prison clichés and grungy car wars suggests that I should be prepping a crucifixion, one thing I do remember is that I laughed quite a bit while watching it cruise by.
Some of the laughter was unintentional, I’m sure. I cackled at the opening scenes of poor domestic bliss, where Jason Statham’s madly muscled workmensch carried home a meager steel mill paycheck to a wife who just loves him so much. (God help me, I also thought of Days of Heaven during a couple of those steel mill shots. I truly did, and by admitting so I suppose I’m giving the gift of laughter to you.)
Other chortles were born of pure derision, especially when faced with the decaying, pockmarked boilerplate used as the basis for many prison scenes. See, Statham’s character is framed for the murder of his loving wife and child and thrown in a big house overseen by a bitch as cold as an heiress pulled from the wreckage of the Titanic. That’s Joan Allen, who gets to — or has to — say ‘cocksucker’, only to have the line repeated out of context for no good reason as the credits roll. Statham was once a NASCAR driver, though we see very little to reinforce that, and she wants him to drive in her prison-bound race contest, ostensibly to earn his freedom, but really to bolster her ratings.
Allen is almost fun to watch; seeing her work with a role like this is certainly interesting. But Anderson never lets her show anything more than one side of the steely warden; same goes for everyone else in the film. Ian McShane, who plays the lifer inmate cum mechanic, gets a little more texture than anyone else, but not much. He’s got a manchild milksop sidekick who makes no sense (I’d love to know what the kid is in for, if it’s not molestation) while Tyrese, as the rival driver Machine Gun Joe, has to make violently repressed homosexuality look simultaneously like character and something less than a bad joke.
(The possible homosexuality almost becomes a good joke at the end, when a sort of gay nuclear family takes the screen for a minute or two. All involved say that wasn’t the point, or even a thought, which just shows that they didn’t know the good stuff when they saw it.)
But then there were the bits where it almost came alive in the way obviously intended. I’ll never deny the potential pleasure of a car chase movie, and to his credit Anderson does a couple things right. Primarily, he creates a big-rig death machine and then crashes it in slow motion. The resulting shot is the best thing in the film. And while Death Race is bereft of satire, which means no one is getting killed for points, Anderson does take out a few drivers in ways that are entertaining enough within the context of the whole mess.
When I say ‘bereft of satire’ I mean it; there isn’t a political idea here, nor a single playful blow launched at the media. We never see the world outside any context of the main characters, leading to a sterile parable about cars shooting at and crashing into each other.
But mostly, Death Race is either inert — a disaster for a flick predicated on speed and violence — or baffling. Why is Frankenstein, the driver persona from the original film found here, other than as a misplaced reference? (For that matter, how do no prisoners know who ‘Frankenstein’ is? And why does he look like a George Miller Jason Voorhees instead of the original’s bondage superhero?) Why do drivers, who only have to travel a closed track, have navigators? Wasn’t there some other way to work babes into the story?
Tellingly, the one vaguely good idea, or the one that at least feels appropriate, is weaving video game elements into the setup. Cars have to pass over ‘power-ups’ to activate weapons and whatnot. It’s the one idea that seems comfortable and familiar, which says a lot about why Anderson picks video games as his primary sources of inspiration. That also indicates better than anything else why I’d much rather play this Death Race than watch it.
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey