Rowdy remake requires a tune-up
By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Paul W.S. Anderson
STARS Jason Statham, Joan Allen
Paul Thomas Anderson currently stands as one of the most acclaimed writer-directors in America, having created such films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and last year's Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood. Therefore, it's unbelievable that he's behind Death Race, a stultifying remake of - wait, hold on a sec. Oh, right, this is Paul W.S. Anderson, the man behind such titles as Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator. Ah, now it makes sense.
Look, there's nothing wrong with producing cinematic trash as long as it delivers, but Death Race, like most of this guy's previous pictures, is about as much fun as having two flat tires on I-77 during rush hour traffic. Yet it's not like Anderson didn't start with a reasonably sturdy foundation: The original film, 1975's Death Race 2000, is trashy fun, a campy Roger Corman satire with David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone as rival drivers in a nationally broadcast sport where the purpose (along with taking out fellow speed racers) is to run over as many people as possible. In typical Corman fashion, this cult item even tried to make some sociopolitical statements amid all the gleefully executed carnage - one example was its commentary on this country's growing lust for bloodsport, which now seems downright prophetic in this age of reality TV and pay-per-view wrestling extravaganzas.
This new Death Race, on the other hand, is so thematically tired that in a few months, it will be impossible to separate it in the mind from other junky action flicks (including wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin's The Condemned, which sports a near-identical plotline). Here, the hero is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a working joe who's falsely accused of murdering his wife (where are Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones when we really need them?) and sent to a maximum-security prison, where the best drivers compete for their freedom in a three-day demolition derby that's televised to over 50 million Americans. On the track, Jensen's chief rival is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson in Stallone's old role, and let's just say that Sly's two-syllable grunting deserved an Academy Award compared to Gibson's one-syllable utterances). Off the track, his arch-nemesis is the sadistic Warden Hennessey, a steely she-beast described by one inmate as "the biggest bad-ass" in the prison. Hennessey is rather unexpectedly played by Joan Allen, who has earned three Oscar nominations in her career and by my reckoning has deserved at least three more (including a win for her non-nominated work in The Upside of Anger). Coincidentally, Allen turned 52 two days before this film opened; here's assuming this is one birthday present she'd like to return.
The most interesting aspect of this otherwise stupid and obnoxious film? It's set in 2012, when our present Bush-driven economy finally collapses, crime is running too rampant to control, and this country has basically gone to hell. Reading between the lines, does that mean this movie is predicting John McCain (aka the bearer of Bush's third term) will win come November?