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Dustin Putman

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Death Race  (2008)
1 Star
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
Cast: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jacob Vargas, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke, Frederick Koehler, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo, Robin Shou, Justin Mader, Janaya Stephens.
2008 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 20, 2008.
"Death Race" is a loose reimagining of 1975's "Death Race 2000," but it is just as derivative of any number of films, from 1987's "The Running Man" to 2007's "The Condemned." The idea of turning a life-or-death contest into popular entertainment that the whole world can watch on their television sets or with the click of a mouse isn't exactly novel, and writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (2004's "Alien vs. Predator") is at a loss in how to breathe life or bring meaning into its premise. Haphazardly shot and edited, with each cut lasting no more than a split-second at a time, the film isn't even good for some cheap thrills. It's chaotic, all right, but it's also a mess in storytelling and aesthetics.

In the year 2012, the global economy has collapsed and unemployment rates are at an all-time high. For steel worker Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), his day starts badly when he loses his job and ends worse when his beloved wife (Janaya Stephens) is stabbed to death by a mystery man in a ski mask and he's framed for the murder. Six months later and newly convicted, Jensen is transported to Terminal Island, a prison compound lorded over by calculating warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). She uses her inmates to run a wildly prosperous web program called "Death Race," a car chase battle-to-the-death in which anyone who wins five competitions will be set free. With the show's star player, nicknamed Frankenstein, having recently died, Hennessey wants Jensen, an ace driver, to race in the departed's place. Frankenstein was only one match away from reaching victory, and that is all Jensen will have to win in order to regain his freedom and baby daughter.

An empty-headed, semi-futuristic action pic, "Death Race" boils down to roughly ninety minutes of car chases in a scuzzy warehouse. Were the car stunts fluidly photographed and edited in a way that created an adrenaline rush for the viewer, as they were in 2001's "The Fast and the Furious" or 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy," at least the film would be diverting. Likewise, if the setting of these scenes were opened up and a bit more visually eclectic, as they were in 2008's "Speed Racer," they might have retained a certain discernible attractiveness. Instead, they are gloomy, rapid-fire hackjobs, so amateurishly conceived that they become a lot of sound and fury with minimal coherency. At no time does the viewer believe that the actors are actually in the midst of anything-goes auto battles because director Paul W.S. Anderson has failed to seamlessly make it so.

Thematically, the picture fails to consider the possible ramifications of a real-life snuff show being played out with criminals and streamed across the web. To approach such a topic would require thought, and "Death Race" isn't concerned about anything other that screeching tires, fatal collisions, and myriad explosions. The violence, it should be said, is even a wasted opportunity; it's brutal enough to warrant an R-rating, but the money shots are poorly handled and few and far between. The characters, meanwhile, are ciphers. The only two convicted competitors who stand out from the crowd are Jensen and Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), and even they do not rise above a single dimension. As for warden Hennessey, the puppet master behind the despicable acts, she is but a frosty bitch without a conscience.

Jason Statham (2008's "The Bank Job"), destined to forever play the same straight-faced protagonist role in every movie he appears, is becoming a bore to watch. As an action star, he'll do in a pinch, but there is nothing endearing about him and his seeming inability to smile is cause for alarm. As Jensen Ames, Statham essays a hero not worth rooting for. As Machine Gun Joe, Tyrese Gibson (2006's "Annapolis") is wooden and forgettable. In supporting turns, Ian McShane (2007's "Hot Rod") embarrasses himself as Coach, an inmate who befriends Jensen and acts as his mechanic; newcomer Natalie Martinez is strictly eye candy as Jensen's passenger-seat navigator Case; and Joan Allen (2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum") snatches her paycheck and runs as devil-in-high-heels Hennessey. What could have possessed Allen to take this part?

Apparently, a reboot of "Death Race 2000" has been trying to get off the ground since 2002, at one time even shaping up as a possible vehicle for Tom Cruise. That casting obviously never came to be, and neither did a workable script. With the possible exception of some moody establishing shots of the fictional Terminal Island and the surrounding rocky waters, the film is a lost cause driven by a filmmaker who has yet to prove his worth as a mainstream, in-demand director. "Death Race" is low-rent, boring, brazenly mindless garbage.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman