Death Race (2008)
By: Paul Ryan on November 21, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez
Writer: Paul W.S. Anderson
Country: USA
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It's probably not going out on a limb to say that Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 isn't just one of the best B-movies of its era, but one of the best B-movies ever made. Lighning-paced, wickedly funny and wittily put together, its like a John Waters movie crossed with your typical seventies car chase film. Naturally with seemingly every genre movie ever made scoring a remake, it was only a matter of time before someone got around to the high-speed adventures of Frankenstein, the world's greatest driver. That someone - to predictable howls of outrage from hordes of Harry Knowles-led film geeks – is Paul W.S. Anderson. In fact, this has been Anderson's pet project for around a decade.

On a budget of $45 million (which would have likely paid for the original about a hundred times over) Anderson has taken the general premise of the film – a hugely popular - and hugely violent - road race – and made a fairly respectable reworking in Death Race, 2008-style.

Former race-car driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a factory worker caught in the crunch of the economic collapse of 2012 (thanks, Dubya). On the day he gets laid off, an intruder kills his wife and frames him for the murder. Six months later Ames is sent to the maximum security prison Terminal Island, home to the nation's worst criminals. Terminal Island also happens to be the site of Death Race, the number one sports event in the world. In Death Race, criminals race along a circuit laden with booby traps and video-game-style power-ups. If you win five times, you get a full pardon. With the race's top driver, Frankenstien (voiced by David Carradine, star of the 1975 orignal), recently killed at the wheel, Ames is offered the chance to take up Frankenstien's mantle by the prison's ice-queen warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Naturally, Hennessey is far more concerned with ratings for the pay-per-view event than securing Ames' freedom. Ergo, she stacks the deck against him with a host of deadly rivals led by the bible-quoting sociopath Machine Gun Joe Mason (Tyrese Gibson).

Fortunately for Ames - whose goal is to get out and reclaim custody of his infant daughter - he has a dedicated pit crew of fellow inmates (headed by amiable lifer Coach, played by the great Ian McShane) and a curvy latina navigator (Natalie Martinez) on his side. Not to mention an almost bullet-proof vehicle, which is armed with all manner of high-grade weaponry…

Part of the fun (or not, depending on your taste) with watching remakes is observing the differences in style and execution compared to the original. With Anderson's Death Race, we're more in "reimagining" territory rather than a straight rehash. This version is longer (by over 20 minutes), far less campy (though not devoid of a few camp flourishes) and heavier on exposition and build up than Bartel's original. Comparing the two, the original is the better film, being faster, funnier and more economically plotted. On its own however, this new version is far from a wash out. There's lots of well-staged action, some creatively gruesome deaths, and some amusing moments of black humour. It's also interesting to see characters from the original reconceptualised, such as Machine Gun Joe (played in the original by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) changed from a tommy-gun brandishing gangster buffoon to a deadly earnest, self-mutilating gangsta. As satire, it's tries to have it both ways, depicting (and ostensibly condemning) a bread-and-circuses society happy to shell out money it doesn't have to oggle over violent spectacle, whilst taking the real life audience's money for exactly the same purpose. So while that aspect is a non-starter, the film itself is still an agreeable enough guilty pleasure. Statham is as watchable as ever, and the supporting cast all appear to be in on the joke, with Allen an amusingly bitchy villain and McShane typically solid. It's kind of movie that plays okay at the cinema, but will likely be more enjoyable on DVD with mates and beer.
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