Cynical Death Race dead on arrival
August 22, 2008
Hitchcock said a movie should play the audience like a piano. Death Race played me like a drum. It is an assault on all the senses, including common. Walking out, I had the impression I had just seen the video game and was still waiting for the movie.The time is the near future, not that it matters. Times are bad. Unemployment is growing. A steel worker named Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) loses his job when the mill closes. He comes home to his loving wife and baby daughter, a masked man breaks in, the wife is killed, he is wounded, he is found guilty of his wifes murder, is sentenced to the dreaded Terminal Island prison.Treasure those opening scenes of drama, however brief they may be. The movie will rarely pause again. Prisons, we learn, are now private corporations, and Terminal raises money by pay-for-view Internet races. Its Death Race involves prisoners driving heavily armored cars bearing weapons such as machine guns, rocket launchers and other inconveniences. If a prisoner wins five races, he gets his freedom.But why, oh why, must I describe the rules of a Death Race? They hardly matter, nor will I take your time to tell you why Jensen Ames is enlisted to drive as the superstar Frankenstein, who wears a mask, so he could be anybody, which is the point. All of that is simply babble to set up the races.In a coordinated visual and sound attack, mighty cars roar around the prison grounds, through warehouses, down docks and so on, while blasting at each other, trying to avoid booby traps and frequently exploding. Each car is assigned gimmicks like oil slicks and napalm, which can be used only once. Did I say this played like a video game? Jensens archenemy is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), who is gay, which the plot informs us and thereafter forgets. Jensens chief mechanic is Coach (Ian McShane), whose oily voice provides one of the films best qualities. Natalie Martinez plays Case, Jensens co-pilot, who screams, Left turn! Left turn! NOW!And the warden of the prison is Hennessey, played by Joan Allen. Yes, that ethereal beauty, that sublime actress, that limitless talent, reduced to standing in an observation post and ordering her underlings to activate weapons. She has a line of dialogue that employs both the f-word and the s-word and describes a possible activity that utterly baffles me. It is a threat, shall we say, that has never been uttered before and will never be uttered again. She plays her scenes with an icy venom that I imagine she is rehearsing to use in a chat with her agent.Let us conclude that Death Race is not a brand that guarantees quality. That it will no doubt do great at the box office is yet another sign of the decline of the national fanboy mentality.
Death Race Universal presents a film written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, Paula Wagner and Jeremy Bolt. Photographed by Scott Kevan. Edited by Niven Howie. Music by Paul Haslinger. Running time: 89 minutes. Classified: R (for strong violence and language). Rated: one-half star out of four.
Philip KennicottThe Washington PostBefore execrating Death Race as a cultural abomination with no redeeming value, lets take note of several of its significant technical accomplishments. It may not be possible to make a film with less plot and more action without catalyzing some drastic change in the whole form, like adding that disastrous last dollop of butter to a delicate French sauce. The testosterone saturation-level has also been pushed to the very limits of earthly possibility. If a movie could drag its knuckles on the ground, Death Race would leave eight little tracks in the sand.Death Race, starring Jason Statham as an ex-con, is supposedly based on the 1975 cult favorite Death Race 2000, which involved a savage cross-country road rally in heavily armored cars. Although some critics detected elements of satire and political commentary in the original, all of that has been successfully eliminated from the current model. It isnt so much a movie as a superheated, highly conductive miracle substance for the pure transmission of masculine aggression and misogyny.