In these trying times it’s hard to have any faith in a lowbrow movie delivering on a good high concept or even a classic standby. There’s just too many ways to fuck it up. You see all the wonderful explosions in the trailer for THE MARINE and you know it’s a pro-wrestler playing a soldier saving his fiancee or somebody from kidnappers, that seems like it should be easy to pull off. And then they fill the movie with lame comic relief and have the wrestler spend most of the movie walking around a field trying to track the bad guys before his brief stints of PG-13 revenge. It’s just boring.
Or more often they go in the other direction, they force in way too much. Like CRANK – I should be able to totally get behind a movie where Jason Statham has been pumped full of a drug that will cause his heart to explode if he does not keep his pulse rate constantly up, and therefore he has to get into all kinds of action and craziness. I know some people like that one but I guess I’m picky, I just can’t stand when they take an exciting premise like that and then seem to worry that unless they throw in ten thousand random quick cuts and split screens and CGI zooms and switches to black and white and video and shit that maybe somebody will get bored. Similar deal with DOOMSDAY which has just about everything you could want in a derivative sci-fi action yarn and then ruins every single one of them with terrible camerawork and editing. For me all that hyperactive shit and lack of thought put into visuals just ruins these movies.
But I’m always looking for a good one, I just want something more like PREDATOR and less like ERASER or some shit. Or I want a STONE COLD or an ACTION JACKSON. I don’t want to have to settle. When I saw the trailer for DEATH RACE it looked like one of those premises that could really work, but then it had a gloomy grey look, it was from Paul Not Thomas Anderson (ALIEN VS. PREDATOR) who has long since earned his reputation as a crappy director, it starred Jason Statham who doesn’t exactly have a flawless track record either, and it was clearly a dumbed down version of one of the classic pre-Verhoeven subversive action sci-fi movies. And I was still gonna see it until several people I knew told me it was unwatchable.
It’s not unwatchable. I totally watched it. Consider it watched. It’s not a classic like the Schwarzenegger and Boz vehicles mentioned above but it is a solidly constructed movie that I enjoyed watching. Details follow.
If you remember the original DEATH RACE 2000 (yeah, a better movie, but oh well) you can sort of guess what the premise is here. It’s a futuristic world where the most popular show on TV is a deadly race where the drivers try to kill each other. In this version they’re prisoners and instead of cross country the race takes place on a circuit. But they kept the gimmicky male driver/female navigator setup – that way they can include lots of shots of hot chicks walking toward the camera in slow motion. And by the way, they got a pretty good lookin bunch at that women’s prison there. I was surprised. More Charlize and less Aileen Wuernos.
Like in the original the most popular racer is David Carradine as Frankenstein, but in this one he gets killed in the opening scene. Then Jason Statham, a former NASCAR driver, is at home when his wife is murdered and he’s set up for the crime. He gets sent to the privately owned Terminal Island where warden Hennessy (three time Oscar nominee Joan Allen) forces him to don the JASON X-esque Frankenstein mask and enter the Death Race.
I will probaly be the first and last person to ever compliment the screenplay to DEATH RACE, but I think one reason this works better on me than alot of modern movies of this type is that it has a solid structure to the story. You have the setup of the characters and premise, and then the rest of the movie is built around the three stages of the Death Race. He has to survive the first two stages, then make it to the finish line in the third stage, and he will get his freedom. Before each stage there’s kind of a catch-up, where the TV narrator reminds us who has been killed and what’s at stake, and after each stage there is some exposition and some plot thickening. And there are the various threads to keep you interested: you know he has to find out who killed his wife, he has to get revenge on the warden, his feud with Machine Gun Joe has to come to a head, he has to get his freedom.
Statham does his usual thing, and Tyrese plays it admirably straight as Machine Gun Joe, who is either gay or uses male navigators because he kills so many of them that it would horrify the viewers if they were all women, depending on who you ask. I think Rock Hudson used the same excuse.
My favorite setup is the super weapon. We see early on that the warden has sectioned off a whole wing of the prison where they’re “working on something.” Nobody knows what. Then later in the movie the walls come down and we only see the scaffolding that was used to build something huge. When we finally see what it was it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a huge semi truck combined with a tank and a bulldozer and covered in guns and blowtorches. And it kills most of the drivers before having a spectacular (and real) crash of its own. Of course, you can’t help but wonder why Hennessy didn’t save this for the third stage – it comes very close to wiping out all the racers and costing her millions of dollars in profits.
The biggest mistake in the movie was to have all the cars have a similar black and grey color scheme. It’s a mild case of the TRANSFORMERS syndrome. Alot of the camerawork is handheld and close to the cars, so it does get disorienting at times. But I was able to follow most of it and was thankful they at least put a red stripe on Frankenstein’s car.
What really surprised me though is there aren’t very many digital effects. I mean obviously there’s alot of shots of Statham pretending to drive, but the shots from the outside of cars are mostly real – it’s the anti-SPEED RACER. With the possible exception of DEATH PROOF this has got to be the most stunt car driving done on a movie in quite a few years. There are some pretty spectacular car crashes and flips, and not any of those stylized FAST AND THE FURIOUS type shots where they zoom through the engine or rotate bullet time style around the driver’s head or that type of shit.
The story is pretty straight ahead and predictable – for example, when the masked wife-killer makes a “bang bang” gesture with his hands at the beginning you obviously know that eventually some character will make that gesture again so you’ll know who the killer is. I felt they did a good job of speeding through those plot details instead of lingering like you’re gonna be surprised. But if you’re looking for some sort of mystery or enigma in your movies there’s a doozy of a line for you when Joan Allen (I repeat, a three time Oscar nominee) says “Okay cocksucker, fuck with me I’ll show you who shits on the sidewalk!” When this was playing in theaters I got an email or two asking me what that meant. Since I hadn’t seen the movie I thought maybe there was some context where they had been talking about dogs maybe, and she is saying that he is her dog. If he fucks with her then she will prove within the span of that fucking that in fact he is a dog and therefore may sometimes find himself shitting on the sidewalk, which is something dogs sometimes do. In this scenario we would have found out that Frankenstein is shitting on the sidewalk while Hennessy is not shitting on the sidewalk, and the one who shits on the sidewalk would be the loser of this shitting or non shitting contest, while the person who does not shit on the sidewalk would be considered the winner.
However, I saw the movie now and those rules are out the window. There is no context. There are no clues of any kind to explain what this means or why this character would think it was something that she should say out loud within range of human ears. Also, the reports were true that Anderson was so proud of the line he played it again at the end of the credits. I don’t know how it works, but since Frankenstein seems to have won at the end of the movie (SPOILER) I can only assume that it is Joan Allen who shits on the sidewalk. Well, unless shitting on the sidewalk is supposed to be a good thing in which case it is Frankenstein who shits on the sidewalk and Joan Allen doesn’t shit on the sidewalk at all, because she gets blown up. (SPOILER.)
Even though I liked this one I have to pay tribute to the original DEATH RACE 2000, which was better. Corman just wanted a ripoff of another car movie, Paul Bartel delivered a brilliant satire of violence in sports media (plus awesome car stunts provided by the second unit director). It’s crazy – this movie was made as a completely absurd scenario extrapolated to make fun of such violent sports entertainment as football and boxing. Now they’re remaking it in a world so not-far from the sci fi of the original that the style of the broadcast is based on actual television shows that really exist. One nice touch: they include a warning about violent content at the beginning of the broadcast.
But the original was also more fun because they were more over-the-top about it. The biggest thing missing is the running over of pedestrians. In Bartel’s movie the race was not on a closed track, and the drivers received points for running over pedestrians (with a scoring system based on who the victim is – for example the elderly are worth more points). I especially love the rebel underground who protest the race by laying down underneath the cars and avoiding being run over. None of that is in the remake.
I also miss the colorful, cartoonish designs of the original cars. These ones look pretty cool as fortified ROAD WARRIOR type cars, but they don’t stand apart from each other the way the old ones did. Adding some color would not only help the action scenes but it would make sense – I’m positive these guys would be painting up their cars to make them look menacing.
But I enjoyed this one for what it was. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we may just have the best Paul W.S. Anderson movie since MORTAL KOMBAT.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.