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Death Race A B-Movie Worth the Ride

Death Race
Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson based on the 1975 movie Death Race 2000 written by Ib Melchior, Robert Thom, and Charles B. Griffith
Universal, 2008

The Running Man premise is one that is intriguing: is it OK to put hardened criminals into a game show where they could win their freedom as long as they take a chance at death?  Make no mistake, I am quite certain that games such as these, like Schwarzenegger took on in The Running Man, and Jason Statham does here in this movie would be huge hits.  But we haven’t seen TV cross this moral threshold just yet.  I’m not sure we ever will, really.  Things have gotten a little more cautious, I think.  This movie isn’t even as ballsy as the 1975 version, where people ran over pedestrians.

Jason Statham is our new Schwarzenegger by the way.  The B-movie action lineup is very much in tune with the California governor’s.  Whenever a balls-to-the-wall actioner is ready to be made, you can be sure Statham will be there (coming up: Transporter 3).  There is no one with his career arc right now, which is kind of weird since he started off in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, a movie that didn’t really touch on Statham being a badass in the future.

In this, Statham plays Jensen Ames, a man who has been framed for the murder of his wife.  Almost as soon as he gets into prison, the warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) is asking him to join the Death Race, a pay-per-view event (which is the closest to Paul Verhoeven that Anderson tries for) in which convicts in armed cars lap around the prison shooting and crashing into each other.  She wants him to play Frankenstein, a man who has been in so many crashes that he wears a mask to hide his face.  The last Frankenstein died, so Hennessey needs a new one to replace him.  The object of the game is to kill the other drivers and be the one left standing (which makes some of the lines about this being a “race” pretty laughable).  His main competition is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson, officially the go-to actor for screaming things to something off camera), who thinks Frankenstein really survived the last race.  On the line: freedom.  Which, of course, will not likely happen.

Helping Ames out is his crew, the grizzled Coach (Ian McShane), Gunner (Jacob Vargas), and the Is-He-Really-A-Convict? nerd Lists (Frederick Koehler).  Spicing up the ride for the viewers are female convicts riding along with the men, and Frankenstein gets Case (Natalie Martinez…who is…just…damn).  The race is split up into 3 stages, and Hennessey has some surprises to keep the viewers interested, including some top secret project she plans to unleash at some point.

The action is fast and furious: lots of speed and explosions and things that look like they hurt a lot.  And really, that’s all it’s got to be.  Every once in awhile a B-movie arrives and it is nothing more than that.  Many critics will likely harp on the fact that the movie does very little to comment on whether this should be legal, or moral.  It has very little political commentary at all (of course the warden has a bit of a religous fixation).  Now the movie could have had a lot more substance, and I would have liked to have seen viewers watching the event at home, but I really couldn’t complain.  We watch because it’s twisted metal and death, and it could have been better but it has no ambition to be a cautionary tale.  So I give it a pass, and it’s worth the matinee price.

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