I believe I’ve reached a point of outrage fatigue when it comes to remakes. I sort of don’t care anymore. It’s like watching your brother sink into the depths of drug addiction – there’s only so many times I can yell at Hollywood to cut it out, tell them that this path they’re on will lead them nowhere, that while it feels good right now it’s all destructive.
When the remake of Death Race 2000 (now just Death Race) was announced, I still had some outrage to go around. I was still able to get angry that one of the great gems of genre cinema was not only being disrespected, but that it was being dissed by Paul WS Anderson, surely one of the most tone-deaf genre directors ever. A guy who has basic competence and can compose shots, but nothing original or interesting happening in his work. And when I learned the film would take away the original’s cross-country road race conceit and be set on a circular track… Jesus, I was apoplectic.
But in the time between the announcement and the first press screening of Death Race, I just became tired of being angry about this stuff. I’m sure there will be another remake announced some day that will get my ire back up, but in the meantime, who cares? Hollywood has decided to stop moving forward, to only seek the quick fix of name recognition (although, seriously, how much name recognition does Death Race 2000 even have?), and as long as I still get to own the original on DVD, it’s no matter to me.
So I decided to approach Death Race on its own terms, not as a remake of a film I truly love. That’s actually fairly easy, since besides the title and some character names, Paul WS Anderson (who wrote this junk) has thrown out pretty much everything that makes the original work. I can sort of see why he did it, from the point of view of a talentless hack – in the original’s cross country race the competitors were rarely on the road together, making inter-vehicle combat rare. On a circular track the vehicles are always in direct proximity, making the race more gladiatorial. Again, this is dumb, but I get it. The decision wasn’t arbitrary.
What I found in Death Race, when viewed as its own entity, was a series of really wonderful kills that kept me highly entertained and a gay love story that could be the best since Brokeback Mountain.
There’s really not much else to recommend here. I mean, if you like hearing Joan Allen (who obviously didn’t know there were two Paul Andersons out there) swear a bunch, you might like her role. If you like seeing Ian McShane lazily taking a paycheck by simply physically standing there on set in front of cameras, you’ll be satisfied. But beyond the touching gay story and the fun kills, there’s nothing.
The kills I won’t ruin, but I will say that their general inventiveness and wetness made me wish Anderson had actually set his film in a cross country race where we’d have more opportunites to see vehicle on pedestrian slaughter. I know this is lowest common denominator stuff, but it’s what made me sitting through what was otherwise a complete void of a film – lacking in any real meaning, story or character – palatable. And even enjoyable.
But the love story… There are some spoilers coming, by the way. I won’t black them out.
I don’t know if this is a textual thing or something I’m bringing into it, but it seems to be right there on the screen. Throughout the film we’re told that all the inmates at the prison where the Death Race is held* consider Machine Gun Joe, played by Tyrese, to be a ‘faggot.’ See, the drivers need navigators (no actual clue why they would need them in this version except that they had them in the original) and since the Death Race is televised, beautiful young (inmate) women are used to boost ratings. Except for Joe, who goes through navigators so often and so violently that he isn’t allowed women, as their gruesome deaths are too upsetting for the viewing public. So he’s gay. Apparently.
Joe has a long standing rivalry with Frankenstein, the driver played by Jason Statham’s character (who takes up the mantle of Frankenstein from the previous, masked driver, who died in a crash. Frankenstein is too popular in the ratings to be allowed to die, though). He wants to kill Frankenstein badly. Conflict that turns to love – it’s your standard meet-cute! Anyway, Statham has been framed and wants out of prison, so he gets past Joe’s anger (seduces him) and works out an audacious, never-before-considerd plan where together they can use the huge missiles on their high speed vehicles to blow through the prison’s walls and drive away from it. Thank God that a man like Statham, who thinks outside the box, ended up in that prison.
Statham’s plan, to use missiles to blow up walls and then drive away at a high rate of speed, seems insane, but it works. Frankenstein and Joe head off into the sunset together, which isn’t all that gay. But then we pick up on them three months later, and they’re living in Mexico together, raising Frankenstein’s baby that was going to go to foster care when he was sent to prison. They’re living in the kind of alternative family that Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar only dreamed about, with Frankenstein as the nagging wife, reminding Joe to be a good boy. At the very end Frankenstein’s ex-navigator, a beautiful woman, shows up, but since there had previously been less than zero chemistry with her during the rest of the film, there’s no danger of her breaking up this family but rather only joining it, perhaps as the fag-hag aunt for Frankenstein Jr.
Sure, there’s a lot to hate about Death Race. Almost everything, in fact. And you certainly shouldn’t pay full price to see it. But I do recommend sneaking in to a theater playing the movie (pay for another Universal title, like the sing-along version of Mama Mia!) and enjoying the five or six great kills and the touching gay love story that must put this film in the running for a cople of GLAAD Awards.
*A momentary aside: how dumb is it to give prisoners vehicles and weapons, even if the film mildly explains the safeguards put in place? It’s safe to say that Anderson never thought of the fact that bullets can be opened to extract gunpowder, for instance. He seems like a dumb person, frankly.