Reviewed Jun 22, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Producer Roger Corman is a legendary figure in American exploitation cinema. Operating since the 1950s, Corman was instrumental in nurturing the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme amongst others. But while these directors went on to acclaim in American cinema, much of Corman’s product was genre exploitation, which since the 1970s has become routine straight-to-video product. Amongst his most celebrated pieces of enjoyable hokum in his 1970s hey-day was Death Race 2000 (and its sequel Death Sport) satiric views of a futuristic race to the death between arrogant, boastful drivers and whose director Paul Bartel ensured that the cynical, amoral film was awash in subversive humour.
Death Race is a remake of Death Race 2000 set in the near future where the American economy has collapsed, unemployment is rife and prisons are owned by private corporations. One such prison is Terminal Island, where the warden (Joan Allen) stages a car race in which the drivers compete to the death, racing laps in armed and armoured vehicles, all broadcast live via the internet to millions of subscribers. However, the ratings are down and Allen needs a new gimmick – framed for the murder of his wife, a new driver (Jason Statham) arrives and is offered his freedom if he don a mask and impersonate a popular driver named Frankenstein. Statham agrees, though soon finds that the real killer of his wife may be one of the other competitors.
Ostensibly a prison film which begins with nods to Escape from New York, Death Race contains elaborately souped up vehicles in the manner of such 1980s road-movie classics as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior through to such little-seen rip-offs as Battletruck and even Mega-Force though with a crisis of economic desperation rather than post-apocalyptic survival. It’s an action spectacle to be sure, impressive in its stunt-work but totally unengaging otherwise. The politics of using convicts for a ratings-winning show was done before, being the premise of the Stephen King / Richard Bachman tale The Running Man, made into a mid 1980s sci-fi actioner starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a supporting cast of World Championship wrestlers. In short, there is absolutely nothing new in Death Race, except for the staging of the title race to resemble a fast-paced video game, no accident as director Paul WS Anderson has made two hit films based on genuine video games – Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil.
Anderson’s stunning Event Horizon established him as a genre director of interest and on the surface of it, his teaming with Corman (here an executive producer) for Death Race seems an inspired combination. However, Death Race cannot live up to it’s promises: it lacks any satire and is so full of youthful attitude that it emerges as nothing more than the work of a self-conscious poseur, going through the motions and delivering an update of the sensationalistic exploitation popular decades ago and now revived in contemporary cinema primarily through the efforts of such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in the recent Grindhouse double-bill, which flopped even when the two films were released individually.
Resembling a combination of music video and play-station game, Death Race is modern exploitation for audiences too young to remember when people invested this material with far more than just meaningless sound and fury. The original Death Race 2000 knew it was junk, had fun with it and brought up some serious points about America’s obsession with sporting celebrity. The Death Race remake thinks its super-cool but, like Resident Evil, replaces ideas with mind-numbing and superficial visuals: a simple case of style over substance. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the style here is put in favour of cliched material, a simplistic adolescent masculine fantasy about brutal authority, fast cars, death-defying stunts and finally, the joy of fatherhood.
Death Race may provide a moment or two of entertainment while it lasts, but it is in the end unmemorable and irredeemably trite. Corman’s autobiography was titled “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.” Death Race will probably make money too, though undoubtedly from undiscriminating Playstation-happy mostly male teenagers. It’s difficult to imagine mature movie-goers short of the most die-hard exploitation fans gaining anything rewarding from the experience of watching Death Race. For what it is, it may be efficiently put together, a sardonic celebration of gladiatorial spectacle, but it offers little beyond its surface level thrills, much like a video game.