Death Race (review)

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In the future, prisons will be hellholes and prisoners will be the new gladiators, entertaining us via Mad Max-imum carnagefests on pay-per-view netcasts. Hardly the most original idea ever, and indeed, this is a nominal remake of Roger Corman’s 1975 flick Death Race 2000 filtered through the hackish auspices of Paul W.S. Anderson, who has given us such incoherent and/or laughable and/or exaltingly violent movies as Soldier, Event Horizon, and Alien vs. Predator. Unsurprisingly, this is more of the same nonsense: the only thing deadly about it is how dull it is. Jason Statham (The Bank Job) — the appeal of his thuggish screen presence eludes me — is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to “Terminal Island,” where the warden (Joan Allen [The Bourne Ultimatum], coolly malevolent and almost amusing with it) enlists him, a former pro race driver, to play in the bloody sandbox of the to-the-death bumper-car rally she produces, at great profit. Audiences tune in for the blood-and-guts, and Anderson’s glee in presenting the show’s graphics — complete with merry tally of who’s dead and who’s still alive — is outdone only by his immense pleasure in finding inventive ways to kill his “characters” (I use the word loosely; there’s barely a recognizably human being among them). I’d like to say that Anderson wants you to believe he’s satirizing our seemingly endless taste for imaginatively graphic violence — look, a new way to commit vehicular manslaughter! — but I don’t think he cares what you think, as long as you think it’s cool. It isn’t.

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Fri, Aug 22, 2008 5:55pm

If you see this flick and like to hear Joan Allen cussing like a sailor, stay through the end credits and you can hear her repeat a few choice phrases from the flick.

Alan Slipp
Alan Slipp
Fri, Aug 22, 2008 7:52pm

I felt embarrassed for Joan Allen just by watching the trailer. I’ve seen her do far better than this (“The Contender”, anyone?). Still, you go where the work is, I guess.

Fri, Aug 22, 2008 10:36pm

And because it was all “Convicts killing each other” they didn’t even have a Points system, did they? Sucks.

Still waiting for Michael Bay’s remake of Plan 9 f… oh GOD even that will be worse!

Hasimir Fenring
Hasimir Fenring
Sat, Aug 23, 2008 10:50am

So basically it’s the atrocious Rollerball remake?

Sun, Aug 24, 2008 10:38pm

It would take a true stretch to imagine that this film is satirizing rather than catering to our lust for violence. I think a better case can be made that it’s a commentary on the American penal system. “You want a monster, you got it,” says Statham. Indeed, most people will tell you that a stint in an average jail will kill whatever humanity you had.

Of course, Statham pretty much remains unchanged by his stint in prison. And he’s still the unambiguous good guy by movie’s end. And he didn’t exactly radiate warmth and humanity to begin with. So that doesn’t really work either.

The sad thing is that Paul W.S. Anderson, who has a true gift for unintentional hilarity, subsumes his sense of humor and turns his film into a grim, gray trudge of broken bones and twisted metal. And for the record, I like Jason Statham — he is to Bruce Willis what Daniel Craig’s James Bond is to Sean Connery’s. He seems like he’d genuinely enjoy hurting you. But he needs a film where he can be genuinely dark; this is just stupid pandering.

Tue, Aug 26, 2008 10:21am

“a grim, gray trudge of broken bones and twisted metal” – MBI

That sums it up nicely. Given that that’s what I was looking for going in, I wasn’t too disappointed. I kinda liked the simplicity of it all. The awkwardness of the obligatory dialogue was tolerable, too, I thought. They kept it short and then got back to the vehicular manslaughter. The “characters” were little more than props there to facilitate the action sequences, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think this was revolutionary action movie making or terribly original, but it was decent spectacle.

Tue, Aug 26, 2008 4:19pm

But, see, I was complaining that “spectacle” — decent or not — is a thing to be complained about in its own right. “Bread and circuses” is not a good thing.

Tue, Aug 26, 2008 5:19pm

“…I don’t think he cares what you think, as long as you think it’s cool. It isn’t.” – MAJ

This, I suppose, is where we part ways. I am sympathetic to the idea that spectacle is a “thing to be complained about in its own right”, but I think I disagree. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing for the goal of a movie to be to put on a display of “imaginatively graphic violence”. I’m sure most of us would prefer something that moves beyond this type of spectacle, but every now and again I’m up for something gratuitous and loud – napalm spewing V-8’s driven by cartoonish approximations of human villains, for example.

Tue, Aug 26, 2008 6:04pm

The real tragedy here is that Ian McShane has to be in movies where he is a role character and Jason Statham is the ‘star’…bad movies. I guess I should pull out Deadwood again to make myself feel better.