AFTER MURDER, PARK: Paul W.S. Anderson’s DEATH RACE (2008) [6/10]

There’s irony in the fact that the arrival of this alleged “remake” of Death Race 2000 was substantially delayed after 2002’s Rollerball crashed and burned at the box-office. Way back in 1975, an ever-enterprising Roger Corman rushed the original DR2000 (directed by Paul Bartel, script by Chuck Griffith and Ib Melchior, based on Melchior’s 1956 tale ‘The Racer’) into production as a cheapo, exploitation-market alternative to Norman Jewison’s original Rollerball – the latter a comparatively big-budget, high-prestige affair from United Artists. Corman actually beat Jewison into theatres (and drive-ins) by seven weeks, and his shamelessly cobbled-together little B-picture – in which elaborately-costumed drivers earn points by mowing down pedestrians during a race across a dystopian-futuristic America – continues to be revered as a pulp cult-classic.

No surprise, then, to see it “updated” for today’s youth market – the latest in a seemingly endless run of renowned 1970s semi-classics rudely dragged into the 21st century. The presence of writer-director  Paul W S Anderson is only a moderately encouraging sign: his Alien vs Predator (2004) was unfairly maligned, especially among those whose reaction to the mashing-up of respected franchises was pretty close to knee-jerk.

And it’s a similar case with Death Race, which relocates the basic concept to a high-security prison – thus foolishly jettisoning the pedestrians-as-targets gimmick that’s largely responsible for DR2000‘s enduring renown. Instead, Anderson welds together elements of prison-pics like The Mean Machine, Half Past Dead and Con Air, rubber-burning escapades in the vein of The Fast and the Furious and Gone In Sixty Seconds (also nominally based on a shoestring-budgeted, high-concept mid-70s original), plus touches of The Running Man and kiddie-cartoon The Wacky Races. The resulting concoction is a somewhat unwieldy conveyance that nevertheless gets us from A to B without too many pit-stops – the latest serviceable action-picture vehicle for star Jason Statham. As Jenson Ames, Statham is functionally inexpressive – reacting with laconic stoicism whatever cruelties life throws into his path.

It’s 2012, and the U.S. economy is in the process of total collapse. “Honest work for honest men” is hard to come by, and among the casualties is the fume-belching steel mill where Ames is seen toiling during the opening credits. But being laid off is only the start of his woes – he’s framed for the murder of his wife, sees his baby daughter taken into care, and is packed off to a maximum-security penitentiary where convicts race souped-up motors for the bread-and-circuses entertainment of millions watching on TV and the internet. A crack driver in his younger years, Ames is identified as an eminently suitable candidate for the ‘Death Race’ – so-called because of the lethal booby-traps which lie in wait for the less fortunate drivers – but is initially reluctant to get involved. It takes some not-so-gentle persuasion from the prison warden, implacable ice-maiden Hennessey (Joan Allen), to crowbar Ames behind the wheel – and also behind the mask of recently-deceased Death Race legend ‘Frankenstein’.

The latter is briefly glimpsed in a frenetically-edited pre-credits sequence, and is allegedly played by original DR2000 star David Carradine – if true, this must count as the year’s most superfluous star cameo. If intended as a sop to fans of Bartel’s picture, then it’s a rather pathetic kind of gesture – especially given the freewheeling liberties Anderson takes with the original ‘text.’ But those fans are a long way from Death Race‘s target audience: a crunchingly violent cavalcade of “fast cars and pretty women,” it’s explicitly tailored for the predilections of teenage American males, and often feels like an extended advert for a video-game tie-in as much as an actual movie. But while he’s no Paul Verhoeven – whose Robocop gets a couple of nods along the way – Anderson does a reasonably job of having his cake and eating it, satirically castigating Hennessey’s rating-obsessed, sensation-maximising cynicism (“keep the viewers interested!”) while simultaneously displaying rather similar tendencies himself.

And he finds room for a handful of unexpectedly classy and/or (relatively) radical touches to make proceedings bearable even for those who don’t know their X-Box from their GameCube. A rather more high-toned performer than usually to be found in such slam-bang fare, Allen plays things commendably straight – exuding the careful froideur of a duchess handling a dog-turd – until a last reel in which Hennessey’s composure finally cracks.

This development is signalled by a hilarious, showstopping line of dialogue which packs a startling amount of swear-words into a single sentence – and which reminds us of Allen’s connections with David Mamet via the Steppenwolf theatre-company in their native Chicago. The outburst is all the more jarring considering that, in a movie that’s full of masks of various kinds (from the very first shot of Ames in the steel-mill, his features hidden by protective gear), Hennessey’s cat-like, porcelain visage – symbol of her outward respectability – has been the most carefully maintained facade of all.

Also noteworthy: the strong hints that the most macho and aggressive character on view – Tyrese Gibson’s Machine Gun Joe – might well be gay (maybe he’ll actually take the next step and ‘come out’ if  there’s a sequel). And it’s interesting that, after noisily building up to a climactic showdown for so very long, the ending doesn’t actually involve a race at all. Instead, two surviving drivers make a break for freedom that involves (a) working together, in direct opposition to Hennessey’s uber-capitalistic dog-eat-dog world-view, and (b) forsaking the motor-car and jumping onto a decidedly old-school train.

Hats off, meanwhile, for cutting straight from the action to a cautionary warning about how audiences shouldn’t try to emulate any of these stunts – the kind of admonishment that too often ends up buried in the credits, appearing on-screen long after those at whom it’s aimed are out of the cinema and, very probably, out of the car-park as well. Sir Robert Mark would surely approve, even if overall Death Race can hardly be called “a major contribution to road safety.”

Neil Young
22.Sep.08

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USA (US/Ger)
105m (BBFC timing)

director : Paul William Scott Anderson (AVP – Alien Vs Predator, Resident Evil, Soldier, etc)

editor : Niven Howie (Save Angel Hope, Resident Evil – Extinction, Goal II – Living the Dream, etc)
other credits include Joe Strummer – The Future Is Unwritten, Glastonbury, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Godsend, Dawn of the Dead [2004], The Hole, The Filth and the Fury, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

seen 16.Sep.08 Middlesbrough (CineWorld cinema : press show)