At The Picture Show
'Death Race' mines old material for bland results
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!
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