Movie-Hype (#740) - DEATH RACE
Guest Post by: Ajax
In the Dystopian future, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (played by Jason Statham ) is framed for his wife's murder and sent to prison so an unscrupulous prison warden might achieve higher ratings in her penal system to-the-death demolition derby, the titular DEATH RACE.
Having established the premise, you must know that director Paul W.S. Anderson's main credits are AVP and the RESIDENT EVIL series. This means Form rather than Function, and Visual Style over any sort of plot integrity or even marginal originality. There is only one possible way for the movie to end, an ending so obvious and conspicuous it its practically a Rocky movie, and can barely be called a spoiler: our hero busts out, gaining lethal revenge on everyone who framed him in the first place, and is joyously reunited with his
To the director's credit, while the main story is about as surprising and diverting as a bowl of day-old oatmeal, the actual racing scenes power along like the 800 horsepower killing machines that fill the frames.
Let's start with the competitors. There are a total of eight racers in the event. We learn the teeny-tiniest bits (mostly the names and a panning shot of the car) about five of them; the other prisoners are the equivalent of the red-shirted ensign from classic Star Trek: there to fill the field and look like there are more people actually doing something, but are inevitably killed in some horrible way to advance the plot. This leaves us with Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), Grimm (Robert LaSardo), Pachenko (Max Ryan), 14K (Robin Shou), and Travis Colt (Justin Mader). To this we add Jensen Ames, who is wearing a mask like a Mexican Luchador to secretly take the place of a recently slain fan favorite, Frankenstein.
(Ian McShane plays Ames's pit crew boss, Coach. Only fair, in my opinion, but then I've been badly spoiled by his Al Swearengen from Deadwood. And he has a mullet. Eww.)
The mechanics of the race itself are also interesting. The race lasts three days, during which time drivers have to run over marked plates in the road to activate the various weapons mounted on their vehicles. The first two days of driving are simply to winnow down the pack (and boy does it get winnowed. With extreme prejudice winnowed). Whoever crosses the finish line first on day three wins the entire event. Winning a total of five times means a pardon for the driver.
(And possibly the navigator, but except for Ames' navigator, the rest of the hot females shipped in from the women's pen down the road don't even get names or dialogue. They do, however, get one hair-flicking, hip-swinging shot where they walk from the bus to their respective cars. This, along with the overpowering gore and occasional foul language (for a prison, but then I've been watching Oz on DVD recently) ups the film rating all the way to R (14A in Canada), a source of profound bitterness for anyone 18 or over (or 15 in Canada) who might attend. We have fast cars, heavy machine guns, hot chicks, and 200-mile-an-hour death in every frame, but not a singleboobie?
My biggest issue with the film is the director's apparent lack of interest in even the smallest or vaguest of pop-cultural references. DEATH RACE has a whole generation of films and music to pay tribute and homage to, but does nothing. All the music is scored, so no hip song sequences. I would have liked to hear Freewheel Burning by Judas Priest, Low Rider by War, Fuel byMetallica , Shut Up and Drive by Rhianna (which would have been perfect for the aforementioned hair-flicking/hip-swinging women's scene), I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide byZZ Top, Freebird by Skynyrd... the list is endless, and completely untapped.
Likewise all the movies and television which should have received some mention: The Mad Max films, Smokey and the Bandit, any James Bond film with the Aston Martin, Rat Patrol, Dukes ofHazzard , Knight Rider, Cannonball Run, The Gauntlet, The A-Team. And let us not fail to mention what I truly believe to be the entire inspiration for this new version of DEATH RACE: the videogame Spyhunter .
Forgive the commercial content, but if this isn't a 30 second synopsis of DEATH RACE, nothing is. This classic arcade game is the reason why millions of dollars were spent to get Statham, Gibson, and aplasticky-looking Joan Allen onto celluloid. And we don't even get a five second sample of the classic Peter Gunn (1958-1961) television series theme song in the film.
Folks concerned about the original 1975 DEATH RACE 2000 don't need to worry: the names Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe (originally played by an amazingly young Sylvester Stallone) are about the only ties to the movie DEATH RACE claims to be 'based on'. Gone are the civilian kills for points; gone is the resistance movement out to kill the drivers. The good news is that revamping the event from a nationwide race to a pay-per-view television event gives us the opportunity to imagine what the gladiatorial games in the Coliseum of Rome might have looked like if they were covered byTSN : glitzy and flashy, with plenty of flames, skulls, and eye-catching graphics. In point of fact, DEATH RACE really owes more to Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man (or the Steven King short story from which that film was derived): prisoners fighting for their lives in a lethal game-show environment. The primary difference being, pardon the pun, the means of execution.
My only other issue was the choice of car for Ames: a souped-up 2006 Ford Mustang. Now I understand Ford Motor Company probably paid a premium to have its pony so prominently displayed, but seriously, why a plastic horse when they could have picked some serious Detroit Iron? I mean come on! Any sort of authentic mid-'70s muscle car would look cooler, in addition to being able to haul more serious ordinance (and show more balls) than some two year old 'Stang.
The rest of the pack included a Jag, a Porsche 911, and a 2004 Dodge Ram 1500. (Machine Gun Joe's ride. Pretty trailer-trashy-cracker-style for a hardcore ghetto gangsta, but hey, he painted it black and put afreakin' train cow-catcher on the front of the mo-fo. If it had gold spinnin ' dubs, it'd be '50s new ride inside a week.)
Personally, I'd be all over a '70s Dodge Charger, aka The General Lee. Equally sweet would be a vintage '50 Mercury, or maybe an old Nova. A new Mustang? Weak. Wee-eak.
Having said that, the movies redeems itself with the automotive combat. Much of the recent reality-TV-style photography (jerkiness and overuse of closeups) results in confusion, blurred action, and being nearly incapable of telling who is doing what to whom, or even who anyone is. (Transformers, and Star Wars Prequels: we're looking at you.)
The director uses a nice, comfortable middle-to-long shot through the racing scenes, meaning you always know who's doing the shooting, and who's getting their tail armor shot. Since the film itself bleaches the color out slightly (in the future, apparently the cost of paint is prohibitive, so everything is sort of a dirty gray color), itcould've been really tough telling the racers apart. As it is, you see enough of the entire car in frame a sustained shot long to see theCG'd ricochets bouncing off the glass, plus the shooter closing in for the kill from behind. They could have cheated, gone for the blurry jumpy crap, but instead it's more like it would actually be filmed if it was a Pay-Per-View sporting event. Nicely done.
So, the bottom line? If you like muscle cars, go see it. If you like machine guns, go see it. If you like Dystopian, bankrupt, post-apocalyptic futures, go see it. If you like Jason Statham, go see it. But if you're looking for a surprises, nudity, or plots deeper than your Queen Anne china, just keep on driving down the road.
Three piles of automotive roadkill out of five.