by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 42%
PLOT: Ex-con Jensen Ames (Statham) is forced by the warden (Allen) of a notorious prison to compete in the post-recession world’s most popular sport: a car race in which death-row inmates can kill each other on the road to victory.
I’m in the middle of watching movies from 2008, so why am I passing up the chance to write about such gems as Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Hurt Locker (made in ’08, RELEASED in ’09), or The Dark Knight, in favor of this drek?
Because there’s a great quote from famed movie critic Pauline Kael: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
I do not always appreciate trash, I have to be honest. The appeal of most of Adam Sandler’s early films escapes me. I have seen only one, repeat, ONE, Fast and Furious movie. I think Cruel Intentions should be mocked mercilessly and at every opportunity.
On the other hand, I think Wild Things is an underappreciated neo-noir classic. (And no, it has nothing to do with the sex scenes. …fine, it has very little to do with the sex scenes.) I can remember plunking down good money to go see Freddy vs. Jason at the AMC Veterans. The trailers promised a great fight scene between the two, and as those of you who saw that trashy masterpiece will remember, there were not one, but THREE fight scenes between those two horror titans. Money well spent.
And so it is with Death Race. The trailers promised fast cars, machine guns, and stuff getting blowed up real good. And brother, this movie makes good on that promise.
Not only that, but with the exception of, perhaps, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, this is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie get to recreating the ineffable vibe of a video game, particularly driving games like “Flatout”, the “Need for Speed” series, and even “MarioKart.” In the world of the film, drivers (convicted criminals on death row) hurtle around a closed oval track for three laps. The track is built in and around a prison that looks it was built on the bones of an old factory that made, well, who knows what, there’s just rusty metal and big empty warehouses and smokestacks everywhere. Drivers have to maneuver in and around these obstacles. Look carefully, and you can take a shortcut if you’re agile enough…just like in “Flatout.”
They’ve even found a way to utilize power-ups. All cars are equipped with defensive and offensive measures: machine guns, napalm, smoke, oil, etcetera. But they can only be activated by driving your car directly over special panels embedded in the track, and only when those panels are lit. Drive over a sword, your guns are activated. Drive over a shield, your smokescreen is activated. Drive over a “Death’s Head”…well, you can imagine.
The action during the race is filmed with lots of quick cuts, a lot of shaky-cam, and is best played at full volume so by the time it’s over you’ll wonder if there was ever a time you couldn’t hear machine-gun fire and V8 engines. But I gotta say, it is effective. On that primal, reptile-brain, teenage boy level, I get juiced watching all that Detroit metal drifting around a grimy industrial track, guns blazing, explosions booming, engines roaring, and the occasional spectacular crash involving lots of fire and lots of airborne cars, flipping through the air in absolute defiance of the laws of physics. It’s glorious.
When it comes to the script, well, what can I say? The script exists as the nail on which to hang the adrenaline-fueled portrait of bad-ass car races. If you think it’s possible to create a movie pitched at the level of a video game with an Oscar-winning screenplay, well, my friend, I’d love to see you try. Expecting great dialogue from a movie like this is like going to Five Guys and getting pissed off at the chef for not including lobster thermidor on the menu. You want fine dining? Go to Ruth’s Chris. You want a great big burger that’ll stick to your ribs for three days? Five Guys is the place. *GRATUITOUS PLUG.*
Speaking of chefs, director Paul W.S. Anderson’s filmography is a veritable cornucopia of trash, some great, some not-so-great. Here are the, I guess, highlights: Mortal Kombat (1995), Event Horizon (1997), Soldier (1998), Resident Evil (2002), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) – that’s one of the great-trash ones. You get the idea. He’ll never win awards, but he knows his audience, he knows what he’s good at, and he’s made more feature-length films than Stanley Kubrick. (I don’t know what that last bit means exactly, but it sounds good.)
I totally understand the hate for Death Race. It’s loud, obnoxious, incredibly basic, and (something I haven’t touched on yet) completely wastes the talents of acting legend Joan Allen. Fair enough. But when it comes to cars and guns and women (forgot about the women, too) and explosions and more guns and more cars…I can honestly say that this great trash delivers what it promises. Not every film has done that.