It’s a common fact that when anyone feels the need to defend the patchy career of Paul W.S. Anderson, they’ll slap a mention of Event Horizon on the table with all the smug confidence of a reverse uno card and then usually follow it up with a “Mortal Kombat was pretty cool”. They’re right, of course, as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but one title from Anderson’s filmography that almost never gets mentioned is his remake of Roger Corman’s 1975, engine revving satire, Death Race 2000, a movie that saw Sylvester Stallone take on David Carradine in a dystopian future so camp, you’d think they’d be driving tents.
Giving everything a typically moody, millennial makeover, Anderson took a similar route taken by Zack Snyder when he retooled George Romero’s similarly satirical Dawn Of The Dead by removing a vast amount of social commentary and focusing on a video game style pace that brings maximum pain with minimum subtlety.
Thanks to the collapse of the US economy in 2012 (I love it when dystopia movies pass their sell by date), the skyrocketing crime rate has lead to prisons becoming privatised with some finding as many, shifty ways of subsidising their income by broadcasting death matches to a paying audience. One such prison is Terminal Island whose warden, the glacial, Thatcher-esque Claire Hennessey, has created Death Race, a lethal game that sees heavily armed automobiles tearing each other to shreds as they hurtle around a track that’s become insanely successful thanks to fan favourite racer, the masked Frankenstein. However, there’s a slight problem as the mysterious driver kind of got himself killed during his last race due to the ongoing grudge match with fellow competitor Machine Gun Joe.
As “luck” would have it, one of Terminal Island’s brand new residents is Jensen Ames, an ex-driver cum industrial worker who has been framed for the murder of his wife and Hennnessey is immediately on him to fill Frankenstein’s mask, holding a ticket to freedom and his infant daughter as leverage. Agreeing, Ames is quickly introduced to Frankenstein’s eccentric racing crew led by the wizened lifer, Coach and his female co-passenger Case (busty, latinex sidekicks are great for ratings unsurprisingly) and before he knows it Ames is knee deep in bullets and twisted metal as Machine Gun Joe, unaware that the real Frankenstein is actually dead, is eager to renew their feud.
However, after making it through the first race relatively unscathed, Ames starts to have suspicions that his frame job happened in order to specifically get him behind bars with his butt planted in Frankenstein’s old bucket seat. Can he avoid more explosive T-bones than a petrol soaked steak house in order to prove his innocence.
There are many, entertaining descriptions that can be leveled at Anderson’s version of the Corman cult classic – the personal favourite I came up with was Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mario Kart – but the whole dropping of the original concept of a cross country race where you get points for any civilians caught in the cross fire in favour of a more contained, prison film means that it actually feels more like a rusty petrol-head reboot of The Longest Yard.
Amazingly, it almost works really well as Anderson is seemingly far more interested with riffing on virtually every single lethal game show movie except Death Race 2000 with the main influence ironically being the endless, rust-flecked warehouses from 1987 Schwarzenegger murder-fest, The Running Man.
Actually, if you could take Anderson, stuff him an a time machine and send him back to the 80’s to make action movies, that probably would have been the perfect period for him to stretch his action muscles because, for a director infamous for his (over) reliance on digital enhancements, the car chases are viciously real. Yup, it’s no real suprises that the best moments of this violent racing movie is the violent races and the minimal reliance on computer powered trickery means there’s plenty of moments where you ball your fists and mindlessly howl at the screen whenever the next roaring vehicle (and its screaming occupants) is impressively turned into a twisted fireball on wheels. Also, Anderson beings his highly publicized love of video game culture by having literal power ups scattered around the track for car to drive over to activate their offensive or defensive capabilities – no blue tortoise shell though, I’m afraid…
Of course, as explosive as the races are, we’re somewhat brought back down to earth with a bump with the character stuff that ultimately rings as hollow as the trillions of empty shell casings the various characters leave scattered round the joint. What could have been a great excuse to give us Con Air meets The Fast Of The Furious, the movie instead squanders this opportunity by making all of its racers grim, cardboard cutouts of each other who end being as colourless as the industrial set design.
Jason Statham gives more effort to making the impressive veins in his muscley temple stand out that he does making his clench-jawed hero anything more than grimly vanilla while future Fast And Furious team mate Tyrese Gibson delivers some nicely brutal tics (he goes through male co-pilots like an adolescent burns through tissues), but the show is well a truly stolen by the Count of Crag, Ian McShane who drenched all of his scenes with his particular brand of gravel-voiced world weariness. It’s a good job because the usually dependable Joan Allen (coldly glaring at proceedings clad in a fetching power suit) and Jason Clarke are reduced to typically corporate thuggery you seen before even if Allen gets to utter the immortal line: “Fuck with me and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk!”. Whatever the hell that means…
While the plot follows standard prison break procedure and the world building frequently refuses to make a lick of sense (75 million people are paying $250 dollars for only three races in a time when poverty is out of control? Female prisons let their inmates style their hair and wear push up bras? How exactly is Hennessey supposed to make her earnings from the race when she deploys a car crushing juggernaut into proceedings during the second round?), the crunching, visceral, action sequences contains enough air punch’ inducing smashes to get you past the finish line.