Friday, August 29, 2008

Death Race C+

In Theatres. 89 minutes. Rated R.

I’ve never seen more than five minutes of Death Race 2000, the source material for Death Race (2008), so the obligatory reference to its cult status and slowly realized themes find their extant in this sentence. Set in 2012 in a United States whose economy has gone belly-up leading to an epidemic of crime, this one is running on the Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man’s engine—a prison in which in-mates have the “option” of racing heavily-armored and –artilleried autos on three-lap races sold for major pay-per-view bucks. If a driver wins five races, they win their freedom. To add an extra-kick for potential TV-viewers (and film viewers), each car is outfitted with a smokin’ female “navigator” brought in from a nearby women’s pen.

This iteration stars unlikely critic-fave and suddenly ubiquitous action star Jason Statham. I say unlikely because he has steadfastly refused (with the exception of 2005’s London) to stretch too far beyond playing a British Bruce Willis, happy to shut up and let his physique speak when possible, but capable of delivering a line as well as any when asked. And because he’s been the only standout in otherwise by-the-numbers action flicks the titles of which, like their star, are not prone to a surplus of syllables (War, Crank, Chaos, Revolver, Collateral). Statham is once again solid here, even if the only heavy lifting he’s called to involves a jaw-dropping set of shirtless, behind-the-neck pull-ups.

The supporting cast is surprisingly solid, starting with prison warden Joan Allen, clearly slumming, who’s the brains behind the show. Journeyman Ian McShane (Deadwood) is fun as Coach, the head of Statham’s pit crew, as is Frederick Koehler, as crewmember and racing nerd Lists. Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez also show up to fill rolls and offer eye-candy as a fellow racer and navigator, respectively.

On the negative side of this ledger is bad dialogue and some pretty huge plot holes. On the positive is solid action sequences, great graphics, and a refreshing lack of the clean, computer-generated effects that have come to dominate Hollywood of late. Every car crash and crumpled piece of iron feels, at least, real here. If you’re looking for deeper themes, they can be found in a skewering of the reality TV series that go to increasing links to make the fear and danger seem real to viewers as well as a palpable fear for where our economy is heading and what that will do to working men and women. Still, the heart of this beast is the ultra-violent, video-game inspired race itself. C+


Lawyer said...

This actually looked good, in an odd way. Movies that know what they are and act accordingly can be good, regardless their cinematic value.....sounds like this wasn't so good anyway.

Priest said...

No. Actually, I liked it okay. In fact, I played with giving it a B-, but there just isn't really much of a basis for it. If it looked good to you, you'd probably like it. Although, full disclosure, a couple moments of pretty gruesome violence.