The Good: Moments of mildly entertaining violence
The Bad: Plot, Character development, Acting, Pretty much everything
The Basics: Utterly unredeemable, even for entertainment or the kind of guy's night out movie that could cause male bonding, Death Race just sucks.
The contradiction of being a movie reviewer when taking in a movie like Death Race is that we know from the start what kind of movie this is. This is an obvious, violent, action-adventure film whose sole purpose is to entertain. In other words, it's a brainless, violent flick that is supposed to kill an hour and a half of our lives. Before this, the only movies I had seen directed by Paul W.S. Anderson were Resident Evil and Alien Vs. Predator (reviewed here!) and the only flick of Jason Statham I had suffered through was the deplorable Crank. So, I had a pretty good idea what to expect going into Death Race, the current cinematic endeavor that combines Statham's willingness to portray violent characters with Anderson's talent for blowing things up on screen.
Sadly, Death Race is even dumber than one might expect given the lowbrow setup and the previews. Perhaps I am more strict when reviewing movies like this when I shell out good money to see them on the big screen, but Death Race is violent in the stupidest possible ways, predictable in the way one suspects it might have been written by a fifteen year-old and lacks enough substance outside the initial premise to put it in a race for worst movie of the summer with The Love Guru.
Jensen Ames is out of work in the early 2010s when he is suddenly accused of murdering his wife. Imprisoned with no desire greater than getting back to his daughter on the outside, he is exploited by the warden of his prison, Hennessey, to compete in Death Race, the most popular sport of the time. In this sport, convicts build little tanks with which to race and kill one another in order to buy their freedom.
Jensen, who happens to be a decent driver, is guided by Coach and assisted by Case to build their ultimate death car which they race against the other villains of the yard. Of course, the race is not quite on the level and Hennessey has her own agenda and . . .
Oh, who cares?! Sometimes I feel I use the phrase "this is a stupid movie" far too often, but dang, this is a dumb flick and it insults the intelligence of anyone who would willingly shell out money for the movie that can't even reach up for the minimum 90 minute usual time frame. In the 89 minutes, there are multiple murders, people are shot, kicked, punched and otherwise mutilated in a pointless extravaganza that defies even basic logic. I mean, let's be realistic; how stupid do we expect our government to be when we think that the plausible scenario for prisoners - who are supposed to be rehabilitated in jail - is to release the ones who can kill more of their fellow prisoners?! I'd buy the "stick 'em all on Convict Island" plot before that!
But the problems with Death Race are not limited to its inane plot, with its ending one can pretty much call from the previews. First, there is no genuine character development in Death Race. Whatwith the bulk of the film being spent during the actual race with cars speeding around, shooting at one another, there is not so much opportunity for making Jensen or his fellow convicts seem more human. Indeed, most of the time, they are simply accessories to their vehicles and as a result, it is easy to further dehumanize the individuals involved. And, unlike Jensen - who the viewer is geared to believe is framed from the opening of the movie - not all of the convicts seem like amiable folks who we'd want back out on the street.
The only thing more insulting than the evil warden Hennessey and the down-on-his-luck protagonist Jensen is the way the movie seems to be setting itself up for an obvious sequel. Hey, if Statham can appear in a sequel to Crank as the same character (incredibly dubious plausibility considering the plot of that movie), what is to stop a Death Race sequel where the exact same thing happens to Jensen; after all, he's got a daughter who he could be framed for killing, too!
If the plot and characters are insulting, the acting only adds injury to the insults. Respected actress Joan Allen allows herself to be sucked into this violent quagmire of unrelenting stupidity as Hennessey and one has to wonder why. Certainly there must be roles open for a talented fifty-two year old actresses in Hollywood without resorting the steel-faced, obviously corrupt roles like Hennessey that do nothing but make her seem desperate for a job. Allen has the ability to act and in Death Race, she shows up, walks with a rigid posture and gives out exposition to those who are too stoned or stupid to get the obvious premise of Death Race.
As for Jason Statham, I think it's time someone ask the serious question: "Is this truly acting?" Statham appears in virtually all of his films as a guy who beats his way to some resolution without ever having to do much thinking. Statham in Death Race is as unencumbered by the difficulty of memorizing many lines as he was in Crank and that seems to work well for him. But the question is, if Statham can act, why does he only take these inane, violent roles that make him seem like men never evolved past the caveman stage? He presents a character that is not empathetic or even interesting and the result is that Death Race's lone attempt to make someone care whether Jensen lives or dies is utterly gutted.
On DVD, Death Race is just as bad as it was on the big screen, with DVD bonus features that do little to improve the film. The unrated version is even more violent than the original, which is not much of a selling point. There is a commentary track that offers no real insight and a "making of" featurette that repeats much of the same information. As well, there is a stunts segment that can just as easily be passed on as the feature film.
Who will like Death Race? I think it only truly appeals to the thirteen to sixteen crowd who will have to sneak in without a parent (and if you're a parent, WHY would you accompany your kid to this flick?!) for whom things like plot, character and acting don't actually matter. You know, the kind of kid for whom "duh, wow, that's a purdy explosion!" is a pretty sophisticated mouthful.
For the rest of us, there are better ways to spend our time and money and Death Race ought to be avoided by all.
For other weird dystopian films, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Repo! The Genetic Opera
For other movie reviews, please click here to visit my index page on the subject!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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