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Death Race (Review)

Death Race (Review)

Nov 9, 2008
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Death Race (Review), reviewed by Anders Wotzke on 2008-11-09T22:39:26+00:00 rating 3.0 out of5

Turns out Barack Obama isn’t the answer to the American economic crisis after all, if the opening title sequence to director Paul W.S Anderson’s latest summer action flick Death Race is to be believed. Apparently by 2012 the economy will have collapsed and crime rates skyrocketed. Prisons across the once great nation will begin to overflow and the private corporations that manage them will have sought out new, lucrative ways to control the population influx. Initially, televised cage fights between Inmates prove to be a solution and a ratings sensation. However, as audience tire from watching mere men fight to the death, they start to look excitedly towards a battle royale fought between road machines. As a result, Death Race is born.

Don’t be too concerned though. Much like the rest of his film, Anderson’s bleak future prediction is anything but sensible and believable. Hell, believability and its level-headed partner are probably half way to the Mexico border by the time the opening credits start rolling. Surprisingly enough, this is all part of the films appeal.

When Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife, he is sent to Terminal Island Prison; home of Death Race, a brutal new “sport” that sees inmates race against each other in heavily modified armoured cars. Their motivation; win five races and gain your freedom. However, the catch is in the sport’s name; losing generally means dying. Ames is quickly scouted by the Prisons warden and creator of Death Race, a sadistic corporate head by the name of Hennessey (Joan Allen) whose only concern is increasing viewer ratings and maximising profit. In an attempt not to lose viewers, Hennessey coerces Ames into secretly replacing a fan favourite driver by the name of Frankenstein, whom unknown to the fans died after winning his fourth race. However, Ames quickly learns that Frankenstein is anything but a favourite amongst the other racers, especially arch-rival Machine Gun Joe, whom will stop at nothing to claim freedom for himself.

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I’m sure his mum still loves him.

Whilst it does offer up something in the form of a narrative, Death Race doesn’t try to concern itself too much with a plot. At its core, the film is simply an hour and half showcase of what happens when cars with guns are pitted against other cars with guns. But it would be unfair to hold this against the film, as it never once tries to be anything but mindless fun. With a title like ‘Death Race’, the only people who’d expect anything but a film with a senseless amount of explosions would be the same people who criticised Snakes on a Plane for not having enough narrative depth. I actually burst out laughing when a corporately attired Hennessey first makes her entrance into the Prison yard, standing out like Poodle at a Pittbull convention,  and a heavily tattooed inmate cautiously greets her before stating that “there goes the badest ass in the yard”. Envision this scene to the pumping soundtrack of Slim Thug, rapping out lyrically rich lines such as “My trigger blow niggaz out they shoes and socks,” and you can probably begin to see just how seriously this film takes itself.

To her credit though, Joan Allen does do well at portraying the brutal corporate exec Hennessey, embracing the films farce like overtone and creating an appropriately heartless caricature. The same can’t be said about Statham however, who seems to have taken a few too many tips from Arnie’s Terminator when portraying Jensen Ames, showing no emotion or expression whatsoever. Sure he’s a bit of a “badass”, but given that his wife has been murdered and he is unlikely to ever see his son you’d expect him to show something. I tend to think that when the car Ames drives has more of a personality than he does, it’s a clear indication that Statham’s taken the callous, revenge driven character a little too overboard. Although, given he’s behind the wheel more often than he’s not, maybe that was the idea.

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Explosion number 2,345 and only 20 minutes in!

By trying to be a mindless action film doesn’t excuse the plot from all criticism. The film’s script almost makes a mockery of its target audience by making no attempt to withhold any narrative mystique, answering nearly every question within minutes of it being raised. The plot “twists” would have actually been less predictable if they didn’t occur, providing you with endless opportunities to obnoxiously yell “I TOLD you that would happen!” to those around you. Ultimately, the overly simplistic narrative makes sure that the only reason you’re still watching the film is to see the next car explode.
Yet, more often than not, this was all that was needed to keep me watching. No matter how much I’d rather deny it; fast cars, big guns and gals in hotpants can be all a film needs to be classified as entertaining. Mind you, not every film can get away with this if the action fails to be exciting and fresh. Thankfully then, Death Race’s action sequences are nothing short of exhilarating. Anderson, having learnt from the horribly directed action sequences of 2004′s Alien vs. Predator, captures the explosive excitement of each of the three races simply but effectively. He doesn’t indulge in bloated CG sequences like those that ultimately detracted from the races in Speed Racer, instead realising that audiences are more likely to respond to a gritty industrial setting and real-world (albeit heavily modified) cars and equipment. Certainly, by the last race, the recycled race course does become a bit monotonous and the sequences rather predictable. Yet, with so much excitement on-screen at once, it’s generally just the critic inside of me that tends to notice these flaws, as the rest of the time I was simply enjoying the ride.

Lean on substance, but bustling with excitement; Death Race is entertainment in its most primitive form and it doesn’t try to convince you otherwise. Ultimately, it’s surprisingly easy to excuse the excessive violence, completely non-existent character development and simplistic narrative when you’re too busy grinning from ear to ear as each fireball engulfs the screen.

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