A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 162 – Death Race (2008)

Death Race (2008) – August 9th, 2010

I’ve been having a hard time summoning up the willpower to write a review tonight. On one hand, it could be first-day-back-to-work blues (everything waited until I got back to explode). On the other, it could be that this movie is just not inspiring much in the way of words for me. I mean, it’s not like there were a whole lot of words in it. Explosions and mechanics and sheet metal and guns, yes. Words? Not so much. There comes a point when the dialogue to explosions ratio tips so far towards the latter that the only portion of my brain paying any attention is the portion that likes fireworks and Destroyed In Seconds (but not Mythbusters, cause Mythbusters makes me think while I watch the fun big booms). And words just stop forming. Maybe that’s how movies like this get made.

There is a plot. I feel like I should address it, I guess. It’s not a terribly impressive or complex plot, especially since there’s what feels vaguely like what might have been intended to be suspense and then they decided not to bother making it suspenseful and just switch to vengeance. Vengeance makes for more explosion excuses whereas suspense just doesn’t get the heart pumping, you know? It makes you think, and we don’t want to think in this movie! We want things to blow up! We want guns and blood and screaming! We want dudes kicking the hell out of each other! So screw suspense. Frankly, I don’t even count anything I might say as a spoiler because this movie is so blatant in what it’s doing. Even the one twist at the end isn’t so much a twist as a slight curve.

So right, Jensen Ames is a steelyard worker in a futuristic USA where the economy’s gone to hell and prisons are all privately run for profit. He gets laid off, goes home, gets jumped by a dude in a balaclava and framed for his wife’s murder. Once in prison he’s railroaded into participating in the incredibly lucrative and incredibly dangerous Death Race, a three round race with convicts as drivers and navigators and fully armed and armored vehicles, plus guards with machine guns, traps on the course, giant tanker trucks with flamethrowers. You get the idea. The whole Death Race thing is run by the warden, an impeccably dressed woman named Hennessey (and how they got Joan Allen to play her, I have no idea). Hennessey set Jensen up in the first place, having his wife killed so she can get him and his former race car driver skills into her jail so he can take the place of recently (and secretly) deceased Frankenstein, who always wore a mask. So no one will know! Of course, Jensen figures this out within like, seconds, and the rest of the movie involves him and his pit crew (headed by Ian McShane, who is so close to dead to me after this interview about a film I deny the existence of) getting his car ready and racing and getting in fights with other crews and drivers and the testosterone is so thick you need a machete to get through all the muscle.

Oh yeah, and he had a kid and Hennessey taunts him about how he’s not a good father for her. Which would work a whole hell of a lot better had she not murdered the girl’s mother and gotten her father sent to prison to engage in a DEATH RACE. Me? I would be taking her word on morality and appropriate parental figures with a whole salt mine. Anyhow, revenge, fight, race, kill, revenge, kill, kill, revenge, revenge, boobies, fire, explosion, race, explosion, revenge, kill, and so on and so forth. I mentioned to a friend that I was watching this tonight and he described it as an endurance test. Normally I’d be all “Well, it’s not bad…” except yes, yes it is. There are parts of it that are fun. The explody parts. I think there were clever quips, and an attempt at tension when Hennessey plots to kill Jensen, but mostly what I take away from this movie is that lots of things blew up.

Okay, I take it back. I did learn a few things. One: if you give explosives and live ammo and armor plated cars to convicts, you should have more than a chainlink fence at the gates out of the prison. Come on, a car is a deadly weapon by itself! Two: I already knew this, but this movie reinforced my belief that women in action movies are magical beings who always wear their hair down even if it gets in their faces and would be a major visibility issue for us normal women. Three: You can try to end your prison break movie like The Shawshank Redemption, with two ex-cons, one of whom was innocent all along, living happily together in Mexico, but unless your prison break movie actually is The Shawshank Redemption, it will not make your movie awesome. Try adding an explosion. Maybe that would help.


August 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Death Race (2008)

August 9, 2010

Death Race (2008)

This review contains spoilers for the end of the film. Stop reading if you want to be left in suspense. I feel I can pretty freely spoil the end since the movie is highly derivative and predictable, but I thought I’d put the warning here just to be safe.

It has been many years since I last saw the movie this one is a homage to (Death Race 2000) but it’s the sort of movie that makes an impression and sticks with you, so I was curious and dismissive when I heard they were re-making it a couple years ago. But after watching this piece of exploitative cheese I have to admit that I actually enjoyed it.

This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and is completely unashamed about it. It spends about the first half hour establishing the plot, such as it is. Really there’s nothing new or unexpected here. Jason Statham is Jensen Ames (“like the car”), a regular working class guy who used to be a race car driver, but now works in a foundry. Things inevitably go bad for him. The foundry closes, he gets caught up in a riot, then he gets framed for the murder of his wife. So he ends up in prison, on Terminal Island, home of the Death Race. It’s a televised event wherein prisoners vie for early release by trying to kill each other on a race track. The warden needs Ames to race as the enigmatic Frankenstein, who was killed in a race. She needs Frankenstein because her ratings have taken a dive without him in the races. It’s pretty much EXACTLY the plot of The Running Man, so if you’ve seen that then you know what’s up here.

With that formality out of the way the movie can proceed directly to the meat. An hour and a half of nothing but driving, blood, fire and explosions. The Death Race takes place over three days, each day featuring three laps of racing and mayhem. in a video-game inspired bit of silliness the offensive and defensive weapons of the cars can only be activated by driving over big light-up shield and sword buttons laid into the track. Indeed much of the way the race is tracked for the online viewers is heavily inspired by video games such as Wipeout and Zero-G. There’s the leader-board which indicates each fatality by having the deceased driver’s name fall to the bottom of the tally with a big red X through his portrait. There’s the overhead map with its pointers and pictures to show where the power-ups and racers are. (It’s like a bloody and explosion filled version of Mario Kart. Only instead of the purple tortoise shell there’s death heads that cause steel rods to come up out of the track to skewer the racers.)

Maybe it’s that I’m used to playing video-games for hours at a time, but I had no trouble enjoying more than an hour of almost non-stop racing and explosions. (Oh, sure there’s some token curvaceous women who flip their hair and pose in slow-mo, and a plot about a corrupt warden and a rigged game… but none of that was what I was watching the movie for.) It helps that the racing is so well filmed and edited. Director and screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson (wow, that’s a lot of name… not to be confused with P.T. Anderson) has chosen to do almost all of the effects practically and in-camera. Or at least so it appears. I’m sure there are plenty of digital effects as well, but they do the job so well that you can easily believe that everything you see is real. He does a little slowing down into slo-mo for emphasis (mostly concentrating on slo-mo drifts and ejected bullet casings) but doesn’t reach into Zack Snyder territory with it. And he does a wonderful job of keeping the camera moving along with the action. There are several great swooping crane shots used to show the cars from a distance. Anderson even keeps the camera moving during the race when he cuts back to people watching. Particularly the warden. Whenever she is shown observing the race it’s either in a big wide dolly shot as if the camera is a car speeding by her or a tracking zoom over her head, or something else of the sort.

It’s a frenetic, fast-paced, bumping, sliding, jumping and grinding mess of a movie. And I have to admit that I enjoy it. I’m easily able to turn my brain off and just go with the action. I do wonder, however, if the end is intended to be as homoerotic as I found it to be. I suspect that the target audience for a brainless action flick such as this is not one that wants to see the two male lead actors live happily ever after together in domestic bliss, so maybe I’m reading too much into it. Then again, maybe Paul W.S. Anderson has a hidden gay agenda, and if so I salute him for it. It was an unexpected delight that raised the movie in my estimation.

August 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment