Now That's Entertainment?
Death Race / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | August 22, 2008 | Comments ()
It seems deliciously ironic that Paul W. S. Anderson would remake a Roger Corman camp classic. Anderson’s films have all had the trappings of B-grade fluff: space monster battles, ninja action, zombie slaying…all of these are topics (especially in the case of the video-game tie-ins) that should’ve been epic fun but were thunderously dull. It’s almost as if Anderson is reaching for the stars, even with such laughable material. The man doesn’t seem to possess the right frame of mind for his films, or have a sense of humor, so he lets his magic ninjas and mutant zombie dogs bounce across the screen with the stone face of seriousness. At least this time his material is supposed to be cheesy; Anderson launches Corman’s premise with a budget the latter could’ve only dreamt about, but without the flair for satire which sent Death Race 2000 into camp annals. What’s left is a grim, unpretentious action movie.
The inmate-as-gladiator trope has been popular for a while now. The concept is an interesting one, aiming a cynical eye at corporate exploitation and tacit audience endorsement — given the current fascination with “reality” TV and violence, is it much of a stretch to imagine that audiences would go apeshit watching people murder one another in Battle Royales, so long as (like inmates) they’re socially disenfranchised? Foucault would eat this shit up. But where Corman was satirizing the media, Anderson’s metaphors can only be drawn unintentionally. He gives us boobs, blood, armored muscle cars with machine guns, and tons of explosions not to mock our yearning for entertainment at any cost, but to simply, unpretentiously entertain. Who wouldn’t want to see such things in the first place? — asks Death Race, taking Corman’s premise right through the Fourth Wall and into our theater seats. The implications are a little disturbing, though in no way unusual these days.
So, the year is 2012 (Anderson only needs four years to establish a dystopia?!) and the American economy has collapsed, which for some reason correlates to prison institutions being exclusively run by corporations for profit. This has lead to the pay-per-view event known as Death Race, wherein inmates race around dangerous obstacle courses in armored vehicles while trying to blast one another with mounted miniguns. It’s funny that instead of being based on a video game, Death Race’s premise works as if to retroactively found one, with drivers as “characters” colorfully named Frankenstein, Machine Gun Joe, or Grim Reaper literally driving over “powerups” which activate the offensive and defensive weaponry on their cars. It’s like Mario Kart if the object was to blow off Luigi’s face or impale Bowser on a giant metal rail.
After being framed for the murder of his wife, Jason Statham (played by Jason Statham) is sent to Terminal Island and offered a position as the recently deceased death racer Frankenstein. Statham, we learn through gratuitous plot arcs, was framed and brought to participate in Death Race through the machinations of the hilariously evil warden/CEO (Joan Allen) as a ringer. Statham is promised freedom if he wins another race as Frankenstein, though he and the audience knows she’ll never let go of such a ratings-magnet. Statham has to avoid the usual deadly pitfalls in this dangerous game while also dodging the obsessive rivalry of Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson).
The plot is a pretty flimsy setup for the races themselves — loud, bloody affairs with no shortage of bullet-fire and grinding metal. Even better, each driver is accompanied by a “navigator” who performs helpful tasks like yelling “Go that way!” on the course and flipping switches — and did I mention that they’re all buxom ladies, bused in from the nearby supermodels’ penitentiary, their cleavage sprouting happily behind paper-thin tankinis? Yep.
But as stupid as all of this sounds, Death Race isn’t half bad at what it’s supposed to be: throwaway faux-grindhouse flair. Unlike in the past, Anderson isn’t reaching beyond his own one-dimensional male id, just setting up his moronic pins and then kicking them over with glee. But that’s also what makes the film a little unsettling — it’s absolutely, unapologetically depthless. As cheesy and opportunistic as Roger Corman certainly was, he at least had an eye for dramatic irony; Anderson either doesn’t understand Death Race 2000’s use of humor and satire or, more likely, he doesn’t care, and thus his own Death Race somehow manages to dumb down exploitation, taking the very reason Corman’s film has been remembered long enough to be remade and making a film than won’t be remembered five minutes after being seen! Death Race thus becomes a weird, roundabout indictment of how base our popcorn flicks have really become. Yikes.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.