Death Race (2008): Paul W.S. Anderson’s Actioner Reamke of Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s 1975 Movie

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Unabashedly violent, the well-made “Death Race” is a giddily over-the-top B-movie that’s hardly profound but is very good at stringing together a series of vehicular demolition derbies.

A remake of the 1975 film directed by Paul Bartel and produced by Roger Corman, this new “Death Race,” written and directed by “Resident Evil” auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, falls firmly into the love-it-or-hate-it camp, but the film’s integrity to its taut, pulpy story allows it to barrel headlong past its obvious problems.

In the year 2012, the world economy’s collapse has caused crime to spike. Prisons, now run by a powerful corporation, are overrun with hardened criminals. To thin the inmate population and attract a wide online audience, the corporation stages Death Race, which pits the felons in a televised competition to race in heavily armored cars to the death.

Into this world unknowingly stumbles Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), who is incorrectly convicted for the murder of his beloved wife. Sent to Terminal Island, which houses the worst of the worst, he meets Hennessey (Joan Allen) the tough-as-nails warden who organizes Death Race. She offers him a deal: If he poses as the competition’s masked figure Frankenstein and wins the race, she will give him his freedom. But knowing that the Frankenstein character is an audience favorite, Hennessey has no intention of delivering on her promise, doing everything she can to sabotage Jensen’s chance of winning the deadly race.

Roger Corman’s original film, called “Death Race 2000,” was a cult sensation praised for its political commentary about a sensation-crazed society hungry for the next lurid thrill. Perhaps wisely, Paul W.S. Anderson (who directed the “Mortal Kombat” films and “Resident Evil”) doesn’t strain too hard to be subversive. While his adaptation lightly satirizes the hysteria of pricey pay-per-view events in its build-up to the film’s Death Race event, Anderson seems to understand that there’s no reason to be high-minded when your movie will live or die on the strength of its kinetic carnage.

In this regard, Anderson succeeds. With editor Niven Howie, Anderson manages for the most part to orchestrate large-scale race scenes involving several cars without losing narrative flow. Unquestionably, “Death Race” is yet another high-octane, hyper-speed action film, but its editing isn’t so choppy as to be completely incoherent. The worry in a movie like this is that repetition will lead to overkill. (Death Race is actually a series of three different events, each one more harrowing than the last.) But Anderson has laid out enough surprises in the action sequences to keep us interested throughout.

It may seem silly to say about a film whose dialogue rarely transcends tough-guy bravado, but it needs to be noted that one of the keys to the success of “Death Race” is the quality of its acting. No one in the cast should be cleaning off his or her mantle for any Oscars, but Anderson elicits a series of no-nonsense performances from his actors that neither overdoes the gritty urgency nor falls into self-mocking camp. “Death Race” is particularly helped by Jason Statham’s presence. Outside of his startling turn in “The Bank Job,” Statham is usually remembered for his leading roles in disposable action movies like “War” or “The Transporter.” But as he has in the past, he elevates the threadbare material with his effortless charisma. Watching him in “Death Race,” he again projects a dynamic coolness that’s so cocksure it’s almost witty in its nonchalance.

Though Joan Allen occasionally overplays her character’s ice-queen demeanor, she’s surprisingly effective in the sort of one-note role that Oscar-nominated actresses tend to turn down. Like Statham, she never mugs, and she radiates a certain sexual heat in her confrontations with him that give the predictable showdown scenes a little more spark. Admittedly, she doesn’t have the surest grip on some of her more foul-mouthed lines, leading to unintentional chuckles, but she hardly embarrasses herself.

The supporting cast is all one could ask for. It’s pungent and memorable without drawing too much attention away from the good guy. As Jensen’s crew chief, Ian McShane is darkly funny in a low-key way, while Tyrese Gibson’s arch nemesis possesses all the requisite bad attitude. Natalie Martinez is saddled with the obligatory hot-babe role, and Anderson seems to have spent most of his time shaping her performance by making sure she always steps out of cars in slow-motion with her long hair flowing in the breeze and her cleavage showing prominently. It’s a stereotypical part, but at least she has a little fun with it.

“Death Race” can’t compare to the best action entries of this past summer, but its grubby excitement does become intoxicating. To be sure, the movie is brainless escapism cranked to full volume and catering to male fantasies of huge explosions and objectified women. But Statham’s magnetic charm and Anderson’s tonal control steer us past the material’s obvious limitations. Even if “Death Race” isn’t high art, at least it’s low art done with a certain amount of style.

Cast

Jason Statham (Jensen Ames)
Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe)
Ian McShane (Coach)
Natalie Martinez (Case)
Joan Allen (Hennessey)

Credits

Universal Pictures presents in association with Relativity Media an Impact Pictures/C-W production in association with Roger Corman
Producers: Paula Wagner, Jeremy Bolt, Paul W.S. Anderson
Executive producers: Roger Corman, Dennis E. Jones, Don Granger, Ryan Kavanaugh
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenplay: Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the screenplay by Robert Thom and Charles Griffith, from a story by I.B. Melchor
Cinematography: Scott Kevan
Editor: Niven Howie
Music: Paul Haslinger
Production design: Paul Denham Austerberry

Running time: 105 minutes