No one is about to mistake the output of British-born action director Paul WS Anderson for his namesake, Paul Thomas ‘There Will Be Blood’ Anderson, but he’s had a few commercial hits (Mortal Kombat; Resident Evil; AVP: Alien vs Predator) to offset some stinky reviews (Soldier; Shopping). He also gets a little extra credit for writing his own screenplays.
Ostensibly this is a remake of Roger Corman’s low-budget black comedy Death Race 2000 (1974), in which David Carradine, Sly Stallone and Mary Woronov raced across the US in souped-up hotrods, racking up points for each innocent bystander they ran over (you get more points for toddlers and pensioners). Anderson has ditched most of this, though he’s retained the racing names of two key characters, the masked Frankenstein, and Machine Gun Joe, and the TV sportscast framework.
He’s married these elements with a prison scenario that’s basically lifted from the old (but excellent) Burt Reynolds’ movie Mean Machine, already remade twice recently with Vinnie Jones and Adam Sandler.
Set in 2012, after the US economic collapse (!), this Death Race is a pay TV ratings gambit pulled by CEO of a privatized prison, Terminal Island. A dozen convict drivers vie for victory in a gladiatorial demolition derby over three stages ($99 to tune in to each stage, or $250 for all three). Win five races and earn your release papers.
Jason Statham is Jensen Ames, “named after the Interceptor”, the working class hero and ace driver framed for the murder of his wife and persuaded to pull on Frankenstein’s mask for the next race. Ian McShane is his mechanic, Coach, and Joan Allen is “the baddest ass on the yard”, the Governess, Hennessy (I’m sure Anderson was thinking of Maggie Thatcher when he conceived of this Iron Lady).
Terminal Island is another significant plus, a high tech high security unit built on an industrial wasteland located out at sea at the end of a long causeway.
There’s nothing subtle about the storytelling, but maybe there doesn’t need to be. Anderson obviously spends too much of his time in front of video games, just like most action movie fans. Writing about his rules for this type of cinema in Moviemaker magazine recently Anderson claimed that rule # 1 is “Bodycount. Bodycount. Bodycount.” And rule # 2? “Remember to kill someone or blow something up every 12 minutes.” On that score, Death Race delivers the carnage with refreshingly splatter-happy excess.Tom Charity
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