Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2008

'Death' suck

'Death Race' mines old material for bland results

Death Race
Universal Pictures
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Screenplay: Paul W.S. Anderson, based on a 1975 screenplay by Robert Thom and Charles Griffith
Starring: Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jacob Vargas and Joan Allen
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Opened August 22, 2008
(out of four)

Don't get me wrong - Jason Statham is still the greatest. His participation in Paul W.S. Anderson's Death Race - a remake of Roger Corman's cult favorite Death Race 3000 - shouldn't be taken as a sign that his greatness is waning. Yes, it is a largely incompetent movie by a hack director who can't even seem to wrap his head around the story's simple ideas. And yes, Statham did recently work with Uwe Boll as well, so this was probably a step up.

But please don't take that to mean that the man has jumped the shark. He's got to pay the bills, alright? Get off his back. He's still Chev Chelios to me. Plus, seemingly incorruptible, three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen is in this, too, so he's far from the most egregious offender.

His presence at the center of Death Race is one of the film's stronger elements, but that's not saying much. Playing a former professional driver, Jensen Ames, who was framed for the murder of his wife - all so he could race in television's biggest event, the Death Race, the mastermind of the prison warden, Hennessey (Allen) - Statham is right at home as the wise-cracking, wrongfully accused tough guy.

But nothing else in the film feels quite as comfortable. There have been a few tempered critical endorsements claiming that the film "knows exactly what it is," but in fact, the complete opposite is true. The film, in every conceptual interpretation of the premise, is a light satire of television culture, crass commercialization of violence as sport, the mainstream drug of cutthroat competition and increasingly debased extreme forms of entertainment. This is Running Man territory, Rollerball territory.

Only none of that seems to register with writer/director Anderson. He seems to have no idea that his own movie is a satire. No clue. He seems to think the whole concept is actually a pretty cool idea.

A televised sporting event where criminals brutally kill each other with weaponized cars? Awesome! That would be so SWEET! Let's pump up the volume and pyrotechnics and get this thing started! WOOOOOOOOO!

(Actual transcript.)

Anderson, who previously helmed Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat, is the kind of hack that makes Brett Ratner look good. He even feels the need to tell us, through the crafty use of opening title cards, that those in the Death Race "are modern-day gladiators, and the track is their Coliseum." Thanks, Paul. Thanks for spelling that out for us. (And yes, the film does spell it that way, rather than "Colosseum." Don't ask me why. . . .OK fine, you can ask. But I'm just going to give you a snarky answer. Ready? OK, my guess is maybe Anderson has never picked up a history book, knows absolutely nothing about the Roman Empire beyond what he saw in Gladiator and couldn't care less how to spell the name of one of the most famous structures on Earth. But, as I said, it's just a guess.)

And you know how handheld camerawork has become a popular trend over the last few years? Well, Anderson tries it in Death Race, too . . . and by "tries it," I mean he has close-ups and medium shots in which he manually moves his camera up and down, left and right, zooming in and out, completely arbitrarily and for no reason whatsoever. And he seems to think this is the same thing that Paul Greengrass does in his Bourne movies.

Anderson's camerawork makes Tony Scott look like Ozu by comparison.

He's also completely incapable of creating a setting that is worth spending 90 minutes in. We're told during the title cards that we're in a futuristic America in which the economy has collapsed and corporations own everything. And yet Anderson is too lazy to try and make that world come to life for us. He just tells us and hopes that's good enough for us. Unfortunately, for some it will be.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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