DEATH RACE: Anyone Can Wear the Mask, Not Just Anyone Can Drive the Car

Death Race
Death Race (2008) – Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson – Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke, Frederick Koehler, Jacob Vargas, Robin Shou, and David Carradine.

I love DEATH RACE, which is as lean, mean, and violent a car movie as you’re going to find.

I love car movies: Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, Speed Racer, The Fast and the Furious, Herbie the Love Bug … if a movie has awesome cars going fast, I’m going to … wait for it … take it for a ride. (Shalit!) Heck, I’ll even watch the Herbie movies without the Shaggy D.A. and with I’m a Mac (though I’ve never seen the one with Brisco County, Jr.). Of all the car movies, DEATH RACE offers the literal most bang for your buck. There’s a solid story here about a man named Jenson Ames (Jason Statham) who’s framed for the murder of his wife in order that he end up at the Terminal City prison to drive in the Death Race in the Frankenstein persona (who’s more Stig than the original Death Race 2000 Frank), and writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson has done a marvelous job balancing the action and the story.

It’s incredibly hard to make a movie like DEATH RACE of this kind of quality. Like so many films today, DEATH RACE is caught in the liminal space between A-List and B-List features. Paul W.S. Anderson mines this area of B+ movies as well as anyone. Just take a look at his directorial credits: Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Soldier, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator, and two of the Resident Evil sequels. That’s a whole lot of quality, balancing mid-range budgets and mid-range casts. Most of the films grab either a genre star or borderline A-list star with solid acting skills and puts them into a simple to understand but difficult to get out of predicament.

(I think I need, “Simple to Understand, Difficult to Get Out Of” on a poster near my computer, because it’s the perfect mantra for telling solid, adrenaline-packed, stories.)

DEATH RACE hits all the marks I want out of a B+ movie:

1. A Compelling Lead – Jenson Ames is a perfect vehicle (Shalit!) for Jason Statham. Wrongly accused, infused but not burdened with a recently acquired moral center, and given free reign to tap into the violent tendencies he thought he had left behind him, Jenson allows Statham to do what he does best: growl, look at the camera over his shoulder, fight, make dry remarks, and take his shirt off. There are some actors with the range to walk over wide plains. That’s not Statham. His range is limited but it is finely honed and fiercely delivered, and if you join him on his turf, it’s inevitably you who will follow his lead and not the other way around.

2. Good Story – Largely covered above, DEATH RACE tells a small story in big explosions. There’s a prison. There’s a race. People die. Almost everyone’s a scumbag. Around that middle, Anderson adds the proper flourishes: the evil warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen), her vile sidekick, colorful secondary antagonists, kick-ass cars, and a bit of eye candy.

3. Colorful Characters – DEATH RACE adheres to the Skittles School of Casting, making sure we’ve got a diverse cast, and the casting folk do a good job giving us actors who are included because they fit the movie rather than some racial or ethnic checklist. Tyrese Gibson has been in both car movies (2 Fast 2 Furious) and sci-fi movies (Transformers), making him a perfect choice for the antagonist-turned-protagonist’s-sidekick role. Robert LaSardo has an extensive resume of playing bad guys, and he’s used here perfectly. There’s not much to his character, but he’s cast for his personality and he can take a few scenes and work them for all their worth.

4. Good Casting – The most inspired choice here is Joan Allen as Hennessey, which DEATH RACE a little bit of acting cred. Allen has been nominated for three Oscars, so seeing her show up to play a one-note bad guy is pretty awesome. She totally gives herself to the role, too. There’s no sense she’s just here because she needed the paycheck. Similarly, Ian McShane virtually floats through the movie, and the movie uses him in a such a way as to continually tell you, “Yup, we’ve got Ian McShane.” He’s the mentor, the smart guy … he’s basically Shawshank Redemption‘s Morgan Freeman and James Whitmore merged with Days of Thunder‘s Robert Duvall.

5. The Right Look – DEATH RACE has an awesome, post-industrial look. Everything is cold and hard and grey. Except for the explosions.

6. A Recognition of What It Is – I do not mean this in a dismissive way. I simply mean that what DEATH RACE wants to be is exactly what it delivers at a very high level, and so in terms of conception/execution, DEATH RACE is every bit the equal of Boogie Nights or Steel Magnolias.

7. Good Action – It’s here where DEATH RACE really delivers. The car racing scenes are very well shot, showing off both the cars and their drivers. The cars are characters, too, and Anderson does an excellent job keeping these cars unique from one another. One of the things that drives me nuts about a movie like Transformers is how all the robots end up looking the same, in part by their design but mostly because Michael Bay keeps his camera in way too close. The action happens so fast from so close that it’s hard to keep many of the robots apart in my head. That’s not the case here. You might not know that Jenson drives a Ford Mustang or that Machine Gun Joe (Gibson) drives a Dodge Ram or that 14K (Robin Shou) drives a Porsche Carrera, but you know they’re different cars, which is impressive given how all of the cars are rendered in grey and covered with all sorts of weapons.

DEATH RACE has been called both a remake of Death Race 2000 as well as a prequel, but really, DEATH RACE is more properly thought of as a remake of Shawshank Redemption with cars. It’s a wise decision. Shawshank is the best prison movie ever made (or, at the very least, the most recognizable prison movie for contemporary audiences), and Anderson does a good job taking it and remaking it as a post-apocalyptic action flick. I’ve mentioned the way Coach takes part of Morgan’s character (the wise old man) and Whitmore’s character (he can’t live outside the walls of the prison) to create an easy suit for McShane to stroll around in, but we’ve also got the wrongly-convicted protagonist, allusions to forced sodomy, a prison warden using the prisoners’ skills for their benefit, the warden’s primary henchman being a sadistic prison guard, the dramatic night-time escape, and the epilogue escape to the warmer climate of Mexico. Jenson and Joe are joined by Case (Natalie Martinez), Frankenstein’s navigator, and Jensen’s daughter, setting up a wonderfully odd little family unit, and giving a post-apocalyptic car movie as good a Happily Ever After as you’re likely to find.

The sequence that makes me love DEATH RACE comes during the second of three races, where Jenson and Joe team up to defeat a freaking Peterbilt 18 Wheeler overhauled to be one of the most impressively massive machines of death you’ll find. I love the way the film sets it up and uses it, and then quickly takes it away from us. It’s hinted at early in the film, then revealed in the second race, then eliminated in the second race, too, in an awesomely brutal collision. The Peterbilt could very well have been the basis for the third race, but by employing and eliminating it in Race #2, it elevates the personal drama for the third race.

There are imperfect moments in DEATH RACE, of course. Why is Jenson so worried about the Peterbilt truck in the second race when he knows the Warden needs him to get to the third stage to help the pay-per-view buys? (The races are PPV events put on to make money because prisons are run by corporations as for-profit enterprises.) Why does everyone keep looking over to his car and nodding and waving and whatnot, and why does Jenson nod and wave and whatnot back, when Coach has told us no one can see in the window?

Truthfully, I don’t care. From the opening sequence where David Carradine’s voice is used for the original Frankenstein and right through to the Mexican ending, DEATH RACE is flat-out enjoyable.

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