by Del Harvey
Releasing on DVD on 12/21/08
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When I heard they were remaking Roger Corman’s cult classic, “Death Race 2000,” I knew one thing for certain: it would either be awful, or it would be fun. When I heard who was writing and directing the film, Paul W.S. Anderson, I was at a complete loss for words.
Anderson has made a number of medium budget action films, and only a few have been what could be considered “good” by any means. The good – Soldier, Event Horizon – compared to the bad – Alien vs. Predator, Mortal Kombat. That leaves the mediocre, which in Anderson’s case encompasses the Resident Evil trilogy: Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and Resident Evil: Extinction. The most unique thing about those films are that they prove his success with adapting a video game concept to the big screen; something which few writer/directors have been capable of doing.
Then I heard who was starring in the film; Jason Statham, Ian McShane, Joan Allen, Jason Clarke, and Tyrese Gibson. Statham, like Anderson, is known for picking as many losers as he is winners. He’s done a string of box office successes – Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, The Italian Job, The Bank Job, The One, War, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, Transporter, and Crank – and I use the term “success” here in relative proportion to the film budget and the target demographic. His truly awful films include some I’ve just mentioned as well as In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and the name alone should have been enough to scare him off.
But there is something unique about Statham which makes him a perfect fit for a remade cult classic: he’s one of our most popular contemporary action stars. As longtime stalwarts like Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone age, or middle-of-the-road martial arts heroes like Steven Seagal turn to the direct-to-DVD market for salvation, the industry seems lacking in true action heroes. Statham, along with Italian Job cohort Mark Wahlberg, seem like the perfect choice for any filmmaker looking for a contemporary leading man of action.
Anderson has done a good job of updating Corman’s concept. It’s a race to the death inside a maximum security prison; one of those places where violent killers and sexual offenders seem to fall off the tree, so to speak. And, like the original, the race is televised and is used to satisfy the gory tastes of its future-times pay-per-view audience. True to that conceit, Anderson gives us gore and violence and plenty of metal crunching death. There are fast cars, guns, explosions and mayhem. There is plenty of suspense and mystery. There is even the hint of sex, mostly in the form of the male drivers’ female navigators, plucked from the women’s maximum security prison, and specifically in the form of Statham’s sidekick, the luscious newcomer Natalie Martinez. But the surprising hint of sexual tension comes in the form of Joan Allen, playing the proper warden who wears knee-length skirts and high heels and struts across the prison yards just to hear the inmates whisper about her tight ass. Not something I would expect to see in an action film featuring the very talented Miss Allen.
The bottom line is, Death Race delivers the goods. It really is a high octane supercharged thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat right to the very end. There are a few glitches, but for anyone out to see some mindless, explosive fun, this film has got it.
What? With a name like Death Race you were expecting top shelf art? Go on, get outta here!
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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