Death Race (2008) — You already forgot they made this, didn’t you?

“I love this game.”

Justin’s rating: A full tank of unleaded… but just the regular, cheap stuff. Nothing fancy.

Justin’s review: It’s interesting to me that Mr. Paul W.S. Anderson is commonly lumped in with “Worst Directors of All Time” lists. I won’t deny he’s made some stinkers like Alien vs. Predator and is often far more concerned with style over substance, but the man’s practically king of the “Guilty Pleasures” director list. Mortal Kombat. Event Horizon. Resident Evil. He makes movies that are mindless fun to watch, although you wouldn’t necessarily admit it to a neighbor and then be able to ask to borrow their leaf blower the next day without a deep sense of shame.

I doubt Death Race will ever be a guilty pleasure of mine, but since it appeals to the very demographic that it mocks – the kind that likes fast cars and Stuff That Goes Boom – I’m sure it’ll have a nice shelf life in the near future. The best I can grant it is that it’s quick, not terribly boring, and at one point they turn a gas tanker into a large gun platform. That’s got to count for something, right?

It better, because nothing in the story will. We begin with that portent of lazy flicks, the text scroll that vomits exposition onto the screen in order to save the budget from actually having to show anything. It’s the near future, the economy’s collapsed, and somehow that translates into psychotic corporate wardens running televised pay-per-view death matches between armored cars that are packing all kinds of weapons.

Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, who knows he’s risen about as far as he’ll ever go in acting circles, and seems content to drift around his plateau) is your typical ex-NASCAR driver turned welder or something (I guess he saw a lot of Flashdance and got inspired). However, he gets clumsily set up for his wife’s murder and sent to a place actually called “Terminal Prison.” Awesome name, by the way. Asking your writers to brainstorm a name for a prison must’ve given them seizures or something, because that’s a title right out of a seventh grader’s creative writing project.

It doesn’t take simmering-angry Jensen long to figure out that the prison warden (Joan Allen, looking frightened and miscast) somehow arranged his wife’s murder via another prisoner at the same facility, mostly because the warden makes no attempt to cover up this fact. Apparently, the head driver in her prison’s Death Race got killed (but nobody else knows), so Jensen was roped in to fill his driver’s seat and she thought he’d do it just because. At this point the plot is on the floor, crying real tears of pain, and slapping a hand down crying “Uncle! UNCLE!” — but nobody is listening.

Quickly the movie scurries to its main course: the Death Race itself. This is an odd decision for the remake to actually create a far more limited and tame version than the original. In Death Race 2000, the race was a cross-country event that involved killing civilians as well as contestants; in Death Race, it’s just a bunch of laps around the industrial-looking prison, which looks more or less like every racing video game I’ve ever played. Cars are given some defenses and weapons (machine guns, rockets, armor, oil slicks), but the movie never trusts us to understand exactly what weapon is being deployed at the moment, so the bulk of the dialogue is pinched-looking actors saying things like “He’s using the smoke screen!” or “Quick fire the rockets using the left shoulder button!”

Zoom zoom zoom the cars go, Statham remains hostile and stoic, Allen does a slew of reaction shots (either looking smug or shocked, your pick), and blood is thrown in because the audience demands satisfaction. The final mercy blow is toward the end of the movie when a character commits coldblooded murder, then looks into the camera and smirks, “I love this game!” Hey, Ferris, we don’t need the commentary. Who are you looking at in the movie’s reality? A wall?

See it, skip it, I don’t much care. I’m sure Anderson doesn’t either – he’s got his paycheck and remote Pacific island paradise to keep him company.

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