Published at: Aug. 21, 2008, 3:31 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
DEATH RACE is a film for no one. Neither bloody enough to please the gorehounds, nor trashy enough to qualify as a transgressive pleasure, Paul W.S. Anderson's lobotomization of Paul Bartel's futuristic satire is just a mindless onslaught of incoherent mayhem: engines rev, tires squeal and and cars go boom. Not that this is inherently a bad thing. Sometimes, ninety minutes of loud noises, rolling heads and bountiful boob-age are more than enough; unfortunately, for an R-rated movie about hardened convicts committing vehicular homicide as a means of securing their freedom, DEATH RACE goes unconscionably light on everything but Dolby-fied cacophony.
Films that are deafening in their awfulness are rarely endearing, but one might've excused the muddled din had Anderson given the screenplay over to someone who understands and actively enjoys exploitation cinema (John Sayles being an obvious candidate). Though the modern gladiator scenario is pretty useless as social commentary anymore (movies like ROLLERBALL, THE RUNNING MAN and SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS have worked every possible variation on this not-terribly-versatile theme), the basic concept is still rife with lurid potential. What's not to love about legalized murder on the race track, be it cross-country or enclosed?
Because the former option could be prohibitively expensive, Anderson has decided to limit his DEATH RACE to a dreary gray factory so that he can make his days and... employ the color palette from CHILDREN OF MEN's urban combat sequences? No worries. Stealing is what B-movie artists do. If only there were some semblance of joy in Anderson's craft! As with every other mediocrity to which he's lent his name, DEATH RACE has all the ambition of a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s; it's the kind of droning, vaguely engaging thing folks used to half-watch from 9 PM to 11 PM because there was nothing else on. There's a strange, infuriating arrogance in this: Anderson is behaving as if he has a captive audience; he's subjecting ticket buyers to insipidness because, he seems to be implying, they've nothing better to do.
This brand of creative laziness should not thrive in today's climate of leisure over-saturation; it should hardly be enough to taunt consumers with a passive, live-action version of what they've been playing all night on their PS3. Where's the added value in Anderson's product? Is it Milla Jovovich's sex appeal? The Woodruff-and-Gillis creature design? Jason Statham's rippling lats?
The familiar sight of Statham behind the wheel of a car seems to be the primary selling point here (he's like a twenty-first century Burt Reynolds, sans the inimitable cackle and Dom DeLuise/Jerry Reed), but at least the TRANSPORTER movies are touched by a Besson-ian madness. The sole hope for lunacy in DEATH RACE is Joan Allen, who's been hired to reprise her ice-queen act from the BOURNE sequels. As the amoral warden of Terminal Island, the prison to which Statham's been committed for a crime he didn't commit (stabbin' up his wife), Allen does her best to dial up the kink in her one close-quarters moment with Statham. One would think that a movie inspired by the work of Roger Corman would know what to do with a female warden, but the scene is a non-starter. From there, the movie fails Allen at every turn; for the most part, she's stuck in mission control barking out orders to the "Death Race" broadcast crew. Given the resounding drabness of her surroundings, her inexpressive schoolmarm severity only makes the film duller. It's depressing.
The other major miscalculation of DEATH RACE lies in the design of the vehicles - all of which are monochromatic heaps of metal outfitted with been-there, done-that weaponry (to be fair, there's a barely discernible streak of red on one or two of the cars). Anderson would probably argue that the prisoners' harsh reality is too grim to allow for much in the way of color; still, on a purely logistical level, one would think that the show's producers would want the cars to be a little more identifiable for the viewers at home (who, as is Anderson's world-shrinking wont, are never once glimpsed). Certainly, on a strictly commercial level, the film's producers should absolutely want their paying audience to be able to figure out what the fuck is going on at all times. This confusion is exacerbated by Anderson's decision to cover rather than choreograph the race scenes; for the most part, the action is just a jumble of hand-held, catch-as-catch-can chaos - the exception being the undeniably spectacular wreck of the Dreadnought (though even that felt a little fake, even if it wasn't).
There are a few potentially interesting flourishes in Anderson's script - most notably Tyrese Gibson's out-and-pround Machine Gun Joe. Perhaps it's a sign of progress that Gibson doesn't play him as a fey Nero the Hero clone (Martin Kove's flamboyant character from Bartel's original); still, the film could've benefited from the glowering tough guy queening it up a little. Sure, it'd be in bad taste, but this is DEATH RACE. There shouldn't be a respectable goddamn bone in its diseased body.
Producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner have been threatening this remake for years, and they were probably under the gun to get it up and running before the rights expired. Totally understandable. That said, this is the kind of aberrant material that should be entrusted to a young director eager to leave his mark, not a barely capable hack desperate to remain anonymous. In any event, they got what they settled for. Only Paul W.S. Anderson would make an R-rated Roger Corman movie and leave out the boobs.