A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,

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