by Jef Burnham
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How is it that Paul W.S. Anderson is still allowed to make movies? You’d think people would have caught on to him after he released a string of video game movies that failed to adhere even marginally to the games’ storylines. But that is not the case. He’s still out there, scuttling in the dark (at least that’s how I imagine him), waiting for the chance to ruin yet another successful franchise. This year, Anderson graces us with an unremarkable remake of Roger Corman’s wonderful 1975 production, Death Race 2000.
Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite movies. The Death Race in this production is a cross-country race where you score points by running over pedestrians. It stars David Carradine as the national hero, Frankentstein, and Sylvester Stallone (who was living in a closet at the time, working on a script called Rocky) as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo—the jealous #2 racer. The film plays out like a 90-minute episode of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races, with lots of corny jokes and cartoon violence (violence which includes a heavy amount of gore here), but it retains a level of political satire that is potent even today.
Death Race, on the other hand, is by far the worst film I have seen in 2008. Anderson has turned the plot into a trashy bit of melodrama about a guy framed for murder and forced to partake in a race to the death for prisoners with a life sentence. It is devoid of any semblance of the humor and satire that was the foundation of the original, making it little better than a snuff film. At least in the original, everyone—including most of the civilians who are killed for points—is participating in the race willingly.
Death Race stars Jason Statham, who Americans think is cool because he’s got stubble and an accent, as the replacement for a driver called Frankenstein. Stallone’s meathead Machine Gun Joe is replaced with a psychotic homosexual (Anderson makes fun of the character’s homosexuality every chance he gets) played by Tyrese Gibson. The most confusing star of the movie is the otherwise respectable Joan Allen, who delivers the worst, most vulgar line in the movie: “Okay, cocksucker, fuck with me and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk.” The “sidewalk” comment makes as much sense out of context as it does in context.
Honestly, I assumed going into the movie that I would have some sort of extreme reaction to the thing, whether it be complete disgust at Anderson’s lack of respect for humanity, or, in an unforeseen turn, utter delight at the big explosions. But in the end, I felt nothing. Anderson is a filmmaker not only incapable of delivering excitement, but he is incapable of offending as well. Death Race, like its creator, is unaffecting, delivering the most tepid form of action excitement a multi-million dollar budget can buy.
Jef Burnham is a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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