Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Death Race

Review by Patrick Hodges

Have you ever noticed that when a movie is released that takes place in “the not-to-distant future”, that future is always bleak?  Sometimes only marginally worse than things are today, and sometimes cataclysmically awful, but pretty much invariably bad.  Perhaps a huge section of the population has been wiped out by nuclear war or a viral outbreak and the survivors are left to fight over the decaying scraps of society.  Such examples of films in this vein are The Road Warrior and Escape From New York, which remain classics of the genre, a genre that Doomsday utterly failed earlier this year.

Then there are those films that require less of a stretch of the imagination.  In fact, the setting is set up in the first two minutes of Death Race:  “In the year 2012, the economies of the world have collapsed.  Crime rates are at an all-time high, and the prison system is at a breaking point.  Prisons are now controlled by large corporations for profit…” yada yada yada.  Basically, a deadly competition was set up involving the dregs of society, who would challenge each other in a no-holds-barred road-race.  Quite simply, the winner gets his freedom, the losers don’t live to race again.  It’s all overseen by Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen), a tough-as-nails entrepreneur who created the game.  But when her star driver, the masked “Frankenstein” dies after a crash, she looks to former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) to take his place having been sent to prison for murdering his wife (a crime for which he was framed).

Death Race was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil series), so I knew going in that I wasn’t going to get Shakespeare.  My hopes weren’t all that high, I have to tell you.  When I saw The Condemned last year, I was intrigued; I expected a Most Dangerous Game kind of story, but I ended up disappointed because it got so puffed up on its message – “we love violence, therefore we all suck” – that it deflated the entire story, which was supposed to be an action movie.  Note to Hollywood:  if you want to send a message, fine, just don’t use Stone Cold Steve Austin to send it.  Please.

Death Race, I am delighted to say, never once tried to be anything that it wasn’t.  It was an adrenaline-filled, testosterone-charged thrill ride with terrific stunts, awesome explosions, and the action never let up for a moment.  They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel; instead, they put Jason Statham behind it, which worked very well for me in the Transporter films.  And I loved every damn minute of it.

Much like The Running Man two decades ago, this was over-the-top, action-for-action’s-sake at its popcorn-gulping best.  I expected violence, profanity, and gore to the nth degree, and it did not disappoint.  At all.  Go see this film, but before you enter the theater, be sure to switch off your brain and shed your preconceptions.  Otherwise, you won’t see the forest for the trees.

4 ½ / 5 stars

Review by Andrew Roode

I shouldn't write reviews for movies like this because it feels like I'm lining up to kick a puppy. A movie like Death Race can only be judged fairly through a set of lowered expectations. (I'll try, but I'm not making any promises.) It is fun, very loud and unabashedly dumb. It was never envisioned to be anything other than an attempt at being “cool.” The average viewer will - without fail - be able to pick out every moment where Paul W.S. Anderson had an idea during the script writing and thought to himself "That'd be awesome!" before looking around the room for someone to high-five. I shouldn't pick on him because, I actually do enjoy his movies. He isn't trying to make Casablanca; Robocop is more his style, minus the boring stuff like character development. Or, for that matter, any subtlety, satire or nuance as needed… unless it’s unintentional or totally by mistake and ironic -- that'd be alright.

This movie's lone strength is its special effects, and it lives and dies by the car chase, machine-gun fire and gory death. Michael Bay, eat you heart out. Anderson knows the art of kaboom, and action junkies should be satisfied with his efforts here -- especially during the second stage, when the “Dreadnought” enters the race. As long as you numb your brain into not asking serious questions about things like physics, or how massive amounts of armor make it any safer when your car crashes horribly, or how the American economy of the dystopian future has crumbled, but 70 million can still afford the pay-per-view prices to watch. (Maybe all of the viewers are from Canada.)

If you were to put any consideration into serious film criticism where Death Race is concerned, then you'd be the first one. The movie is so predictable, lazy and unambitious that it asks you to hand it the popcorn. In fact, have you seen the trailer? You've seen the film. Tyrese's character is homosexual, which I thought was stunningly inventive given the scriptwriter. Sliding back into predictability, it is used solely to make a few tasteless jokes before being forgotten about, which is pretty standard fare for Anderson. If you've watched his other films, you know exactly what to expect, which is…less.

I think the annoying thing is that Anderson really does have potential; I wouldn't keep going to his movies if I didn't enjoy them. It annoys me when the problems at script-level are so apparent. He has a tendency to go to predictable places: requisite gay jokes for prison? Check. Incredibly hot women on screen?  Cue the horny rap music.  And, of course, the most annoying thing is that Anderson seems to feel the need to spoon-feed the obvious to the audience, which is a weakness I hope he can shed.  He clearly loves making movies. Trusting the audience a little more and giving us some credit might let him get better at it.

The crazy thing is that despite all of that, I enjoyed Death Race. It is flawed from top to bottom, but the flaws are worn so honestly and endearingly that you really can't hold it against it. Need to go see a mindless distraction for an hour and a half?  Death Race isn't a bad choice. You get exactly what you expect and exactly what you deserve.

3 / 5 stars

Review by Chris Maitland

As the prologue of Death Race tells us. 2012 America is a lawless society where unemployment and prison rates are at a record high. But after this one-minute prologue the action is pretty-much non-stop.

This film is centers around former NASCAR-driver-turned-steelworker Jensen Ames (Jason Statham).  He is sent to prison for murdering his wife (a crime for which he was framed). The prison he is sent to is called Terminal Island, run by the menacing and deceptive Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Jensen is asked to compete in a no-holds-barred live Internet-broadcasted race to the death in order to gain his freedom. The rules are simple: the winner gains his freedom, the losers… die.  Horribly.

I absolutely loved this film. It has non-stop adrenaline, action and explosions throughout. If you are fan of Jason Statham (like myself) I would highly recommend it to you. I was actually surprised to see this film was Directed by Paul W.S Anderson (definitely not to be confused with There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson); I am not a big fan of his previous work such as Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil. But he did a great job with this film. I honestly think, based on the number of explosions this film had, he must have been separated at birth from Michael Bay.  Overall this movie delivers on what its supposed to; a well-done action film. If you are craving great cinema, go see Vicky Cristina Barcelona down the hall.

The cast of this film was completely bad-ass.  I mean, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane in the same film?  The only way it could have gotten more bad-ass was if Samuel L. and Bruce Willis had dropped by.  (Now that would have been awesome.) 

What a great way to end the summer.  I can go back to school happy now.  (Oh, man, did I just say that?)

4 ½  / 5 stars


Comments (1):

  • Mfrendo @ 08/24/2008 ( 4:38:42 PM )
    I really liked it too. Once I realized it was a Roger Corman remake, I knew to expect a total exploitation film, which is just what it was...action, fighting, tough guys, and hot girls (and that girl was SMOKING). Perfect for what it was (I probably would say 3 1/2 / 5 myself).
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