'Death Race' more like a video game than a movie

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2008

Of all the Z-movies in the Roger Corman catalog, they had to remake "Death Race 2000."

Courtesy Of Universal Pictures
Courtesy Of Universal Pictures

But if the original "Death Race," with its murderous road rally drivers who take down pedestrians for "points," seemed darkly prophetic when it came out back in 1975, the new one feels ripped from the pages of tomorrow's TV Guide. Paul W.S. Anderson, director of video-game adaptations such as "Resident Evil," re-imagines this cars-and-carnage thriller as a video game come to life, with convicts racing and killing each other for their freedom. It's the best idea Anderson has ever had.

Jason "Stick Shift" Statham is Jensen Ames, an ex-driver framed for his wife's murder. He winds up on Terminal Island, the prison where the worst of the worst are held. And there he's given the choice - drive, or else.

The ruthless warden is given an icy Nurse Ratched turn by Joan Allen.

"The life term you've shown up for may be shorter than you think," she growls.

Don't cross the lady in the high-higher-highest heels.

"In here, she is judge, jury and executioner," the grizzled Coach (Ian McShane) tells Ames. He's the old car mechanic who shows the new guy the ropes.

Those ropes? A three-day race through the ruined warehouses, factories and docks of Terminal Island in self-modified muscle cars: Mustangs, Ram trucks, Chrysler 300s, Porsches. The vehicles are armed with machine guns and the like. They have James Bond-style oil slick/smoke-screen defense gadgets. You drive over manhole covers that are like video game icons; "shields" activate your defense mechanisms. "Swords" turn on the guns.

And there's a "navigator," a pretty female inmate. Because the whole thing is pay-per-view. It's not just about the killing. It's about the cleavage.

Ames is persuaded to don the mask of a popular dead driver, "Frankenstein," and race in his stead. It'll be good for ratings.

The rest of the field is your Hollywood assortment of stereotypes - an Arab, an Asian, assorted tattooed sociopaths, and Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a homicidal homosexual who had better not hear all the gay bashing from the other inmates.

Whatever plot there is crawls into the backseat, and then the trunk, as "Death Race" really is about the creative ways these nuts find to kill each other. Most of the racing is caught at street level, giving the movie its gas. Anderson shot the TV intros for the drivers in a sexy, flashy style that will be familiar to anybody who watches "Ax Men" or "Deadliest Catch."

The dialogue is dopey, the dead stretches in between races are dull (Statham stripping off his shirt and doing pull-ups), the resolution laughable. And not everybody gives us the sense that this is a deadly game that they're mixed up in, with life-or-death stakes. Natalie Martinez, as "Case," Ames' navigator, wears the tight outfits well but acts as though her man is just running her down to the mall for a manicure.

Statham, at least, gives fair value. It's impossible to watch the scowling, bullet-headed ex-British Olympian without realizing "I really need to do more situps." He has done so many of these drive-or-die movies that the gloves seem a part of his hands.

It's still a Z-grade B-movie, an excuse for a next-generation video game.



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