Paul W.S. Anderson
Jason Statham - Jensen Ames
Joan Allen - Hennessey
Ian McShane - Coach
Tyrese Gibson - Machine Gun Joe
Natalie Martinez - Case
Max Ryan - Pachenko
Robin Shou - 14K
Genre - Action/Racing
Running Time - 105 Minutes
Score - 2 Howls Outta 4
If you're reading this and happen to have been living under a rock for years, you should know that we're living in the age of remakes. There's not a month where at least one "reimagining" of an earlier [and most likely better] film isn't released on DVD or in a theatre near you. I think most of us are sick of this trend, but a majority of these remakes happen to make bank, so it ain't going away any time soon.
That's not to say that all remakes are horrible. Films like John Carpenter's THE THING and the 80s version of THE BLOB to modern remakes like Zack Synder's DAWN OF THE DEAD and Alexandre Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES have proven that if you take an old idea and update it in a smart and intelligent way, the film can be a major success.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Paul W.S. Anderson's remake of 1975's Roger Corman produced DEATH RACE 2000, simply titled DEATH RACE. It's not a horrible film at all. In fact, it never bores you. But it's not a great film either and leaves you desiring more than it gives you. Yes my friends...DEATH RACE is just another film that happens to be nothing more than mediocre. Let's change gears and see where this film made a pit stop.
In 2012, America has pretty much gone to crap in every way. To make ends meet, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) works at a steel mill to support his loving wife and their baby daughter. After returning home one night, some goons invade their home - murdering Ames' wife and knocking him out. When he wakes up, Ames is confronted by police officers and is arrested for his wife's murder. Ames is quickly convicted to serve time at Terminal Island Prison, run by the ice cold warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Ames soon learns that Terminal Island Prison is a place where prisoners race each other to the death to be broadcast all over the world via the internet. Hennessey presents Ames with a "get out of jail free" card by offering him to don the mask of the famous driver, Frankenstein. The previous Frankenstein (played by David Carradine - who played the character in the original film) was murdered in the last broadcasted race by Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). Hennessey promises Ames that if he wins the race, she'll set him free to be with his daughter. Ames accepts and gets partnered with hottie navigator Case (Natalie Martinez) and crew member Coach (Ian McShane). But as he prepares for the race and learns more about Hennessey and Terminal, Ames discovers that the situation is not all what it seems and that he may have been purposedly been framed for murder by Hennessey just for high ratings for the upcoming race.
DEATH RACE is one of those films that's all style but no substance, yet it doesn't really work here completely for some reason. It's got action. It's got cars. It's got bloody deaths. It's got explosions. It's got hot women. It's got bad ass Jason Statham doing what he does best. Yet, it doesn't click at all and it leaves you feel a bit blah. The fact that the trailer is more exciting than the actual film is pretty sad.
Paul W.S. Anderson, who is known as one of the worst directors in the film industry at the moment [I'm on the fence on that one], doesn't do any favors here as a screenwriter. Anderson pretty much took everything that was cool about the original [colorful characters, unique cars, camp value] and left it on the cutting room floor. The characters aren't developed enough for us to give a damn about them, except for Ames and maybe Hennessey mainly for their actions and dialogue alone. All the racers besides Ames/Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe are interchangably cannon fodder just to have these two race each other at the end. The cars all look like metal tanks with machine guns and smoke screens. In the original, even the cars had personality. Here? They're as cold as Hennessey's personality. Nothing really special about the cars here except that they can kill people if used correctly. And there's no camp value in this film at all. It takes itself way too seriously for such a silly premise. Plus it's predictable and heavily cliched as hell. Those things are only bad when a filmmaker doesn't attempt to do anything special with them, like Anderson fails to do here. It's just lazy screenwriting from beginning to end, which sucks because this film could have been cooler if someone who can actually write a compelling script was hired for DEATH RACE.
Plus Anderson seems to attempt at some social commentary here, but doesn't do anything with it. There's the idea of people paying hundreds of dollars to watch people kill each other on the internet. Yeah, that shows how fucked up society has become due to its futuristic dark age. But is it made to be somewhat important? No. THE CONDEMNED [which is exactly what this film is, but with cars] and UNTRACEABLE did a much better job expressing this commentary in their respective films. DEATH RACE just swats it away. Plus, we have something that's brought up about Machine Gun Joe's sexuality, that never plays out at all in the entire film. Why even bother saying he's a homosexual if he doesn't even exude or display anything that would make the audience believe the same thing? And then there's the idea of replacing Frankenstein with someone else. Hennessey says something along the lines of being able to replace the driver but not the mask towards the end of the film and it just made me see it as Anderson's way of commenting on the remake cycle. It's as Anderson is saying that as long as the name of the film is the same, even with a different crew and actors involved, it doesn't really matter because viewers will see it as sort of the same anyway - as if the original can be replaced by something new and most people wouldn't tell or care about the difference. Maybe I'm overanalyzing it but I call bullshit if I'm right. Not that it matters anyway because I'm sure it flew over many people's heads anyway.
Was there anything I liked? Sure. The action was pretty good. Who doesn't like watching people dying in horrible ways, such as hit and run and explosions? Seeing the races and watching metal get shot and caught in traps is always fun in my book. Plus the women were very hot in this film, especially Natalie Martinez, who can navigate with me anytime she wants. Foxy lady...
I also liked Anderson's direction here too. He's not the greatest by far but, like Michael Bay, knows how to direct action. The pacing was tight. The editing was good. The action sequences were sort of fun to watch. Anderson seems to be following in the shaky-cam trend most action directors seem to love at the moment. It did divert from the action at times but it didn't bother me all that much. I honestly think this may have been Anderson's tightest directorial film. That's not saying a whole lot, but I didn't hate it - so it's all good.
The acting was probably the highlight of the film, even with the lack of material the actors were given. Jason Statham is playing Jason Statham as usual, being a total bad ass motherfucker who will not take any shit as Jensen Ames. He's cool, collected, and charismatic as hell. Joan Allen as Hennessey was a bit weird in terms of casting, but she played the bitchy ice queen to a "T". I would never expect Allen to be in a film like this, but I guess those BOURNE films really did a number on her. However, I really enjoyed her here as she was very classy, yet you could tell she would stick that knife into someone and twist it just for the hell of it. I wish her character was more developed, but what can you do? Tyrese Gibson seemed to be having the most fun as Machine Gun Joe. He was okay, I guess. I still don't understand the whole homosexual deal since Tyrese never lets on that he is. I personally prefer Sylvester Stallone [who played the character in the original] over Tyrese. At least you knew Stallone's deal in the original. Here? No clue. And Ian McShane was good as Coach, although his talents are suited for a much better role and film. As a matter of fact, all these actors deserved better than DEATH RACE. But at least they tried to make the most of it, for which I do appreciate.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE REALIZING THERE'S NO NEED TO TURN TWIZTED METAL INTO A FILM AFTER WATCHING THIS
- Don't ever say "you can't kill me." If you're not a cat and don't have extra lives, you're fucked. And not in that Jenna Jameson sort of way either.
- Joan Allen was a pretty good bitch. I guess she was BOURNE to play the part. Get it? Oh...how I love puns!
- If your navigator happens to be female, you may have to ask her to sit on your lap in order to shoot someone with napalm. Not only is this a good strategy offensively, but the two of you will probably bond when she happens to shift your stick right into her tunnel.
- 14K really got a horrible third place finish. His attempts for a "flawless victory" only lead to his "fatality". How ironic.
THE FINAL HOWL
If you're looking for some depth in your movie, DEATH RACE is not for you. But if you happen to enjoy explosions, vehicular mayhem, and Jason Statham being a bad ass, then DEATH RACE may be a good rental. It is what it is and does what it needs to do well. But after seeing so many films like it many, many times before, DEATH RACE is nothing more but "been there, done that". Still, it's a fun flick if you leave the brain at the door.