Wednesday, October 1, 2008


"Resident Evil" director Paul W.S. Anderson's "Death Race"(**1/2 out of ****) a mean-spirited remake of the campy carmageddon classic "Death Race 2000" (1975) with David Carradine, lacks the imaginative of its predecessor but has its share of exciting scenes. "Death Race 2000" depicted a nationally sanctioned, no-holds-barred, coast-to-coast marathon where motorists racked up points for hitting pedestrians. Whereas director Paul Bartel's "Death Race 2000" amounted to a cheesy political satire, Anderson's straight-forward remake is an exercise in sadism that confines its race to an island prison with no innocent bystanders to kill. This nihilistic, R-rated, nonsense boasts a bigger budget, souped-up special effects, and a stellar cast led by lean, mean Jason Statham whose six-pack ripped physique is covered with tattoos. A bullet-riddled, testosterone-driven, high-octane fueled, B-movie motor rally extravaganza, "Death Race" not only pays tribute to the unforgettable Carradine classic but also pays tribute to "The Condemned," "The Running Man," "Escape from Alcatraz," "Goldfinger," and "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior."

"Death Race" takes place in the year 2012 after the U.S. economy has collapsed. Unemployment and crime rage out of control. The government has sold all prison over to the private sector. At Terminal Island, for example, the prison administration began broadcasting pay-per-view cage fights. Audiences, however, lost interest in them, so evil Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen of "The Bourne Supremacy") created a lethal, closed circuit car race. Each auto bristles with guns, rockets, and explosives like those in "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior." The undisputed racing champ is an indestructible legend called Frankenstein. We never get a glimpse of Frankenstein's face, but David Carradine provides the voice. Carradine portrayed Frankenstein in "Death Race 2000." The infamous Frankenstein has been injured so often that he wears a mask. As the action unfolds, Frankenstein dies in a spectacular crash, but Warden Hennessey keeps his death a closely-guarded secret. Some 45 million viewers pay between $99 and $250 to watch Hennessey's three day death race, and she isn't about to jeopardize her high ratings with news about Frankenstein's death.

Hennessey dispatches her vilest inmate, Pachenko (Max Ryan of "Kiss of the Dragon"), to track down former NASCAR driver Jenson Ames. Pachenko stabs Ames' wife Suzy (Janaya Stephens) to death and frames the unsuspecting Jenson for her murder. Six months later, Ames (Jason Statham) draws a life sentence and Hennessey pulls strings to land him on Terminal Island. Terminal Island resembles Alcatraz, except a bridge links it with the mainland. Hennessey convinces Ames to don Frankenstein's mask. Hennessey promises to release Jensen if he impersonates Frankenstein and wins one more race. Jenson had a baby daughter Piper, and the despicable Hennessey holds Piper's welfare over Jenson's head. Nevertheless, Hennessey plants an explosive charge under Jensen's car in case he tries to double-cross her.

Coach (British actor Ian McShane of HBO's "Deadwood" with his sinister raccoon eyebrows) and his multi-cultural crew maintains Frankenstein's Ford V-8, fastback Mustang that shares many features with James Bond's Aston-Martin. Hennessey imports buxom babes from a nearby women's prison to serve as navigators for the drivers on an elaborate race course that she has laid out on the prison's premises. Frankenstein's closest rival, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson of "2 Fast 2 Furious"), is a pugnacious black homosexual who draws his navigators from the prison's all male population. Machine Gun has triumphed in three races. Joe needs only two more wins before he can obtain his freedom and retire to Miami. The problem is that the treacherous Warden Hennessey hates to keep her word to anybody.

"Death Race" wallows in violent, anti-social behavior. Armor-plated automobiles careen through the prison grounds with desperate drivers blasting away at each other with rockets and machine guns galore. Life in cheap in Terminal Island and the most perfidious person at the prison is Warden Hennessey who abhors profanity but spouts her fair share. Unfortunately, this predictable story has been retreaded so often that the complications outnumber the surprises. Whereas Paul Bartel's "Death Race" was funny but ferocious, Anderson's spin is simply ferocious with characters scheming to defeat their rivals. The hero, Jenson Ames, wins our sympathy on two counts. He has an infant daughter and we know that Pachenko framed him for his wife's murder. Everybody else on Terminal Island hasn't a shred of dignity. The guards are baton-wielding sadists and Warden Hennessey rivals Linda Fletcher's Oscar winning turn as Nurse Ratched in the Jack Nicholson masterpiece "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Clocking in at a ballistic 89 minutes, "Death Race" runs only marginally longer than its 82-minute predecessor. Anderson never squanders a second and delivers thrills, chills, and a surprise or two along the way. Unfortunately, he seems to have set his sights lower with this formulaic $45 million epic after helming superior sagas such as "Resident Evil" and "AVP: Alien Vs. Predator." While the "Death Race" women aren't the primary focus of the plot, Anderson has cast talented Joan Allen as a sadistic, domineering prison warden. She rules her realm with an iron hand and a double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun concealed in the knee-hole of her desk. "Death Race" suffers from at least one inconsistency. A warning sign on the wall of the prison dining hall proclaims the warning that no warning shots will be fired. When the guards quell a fight between Jensen and Pachenko, they warn them that they will fire. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, "Death Race" qualifies as an adequate popcorn movie for people who love big, dumb, action epics.

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