Monday, January 05, 2009
There is something slightly eerie about a movie, a mindless action movie mind you, that opens with text explaining that the year is 2012 and that the American economy has collapsed. "Death Race" is more timely than I knew and probably more timely than either the director or cast anticipated. The opening text of the movie goes on to explain that due to the economic collapse the American prison system has been taken over by private corporations that, in order to stay profitable, have taken to staging gladiator-style competitions that can be viewed via pay-per-view. The latest competition, the brainchild of the Terminal Island warden Hennessey (Joan Allen in a surprisingly low-brow role) is the Death Race. Driving armored and heavily armed vehicles, prisoners can compete for a chance at freedom if they can win-- and survive-- five Death Races. The race is driven in three legs across three deadly days and the survival rate is less that 40% according to warden Hennessey. Former race car driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is brought into the Death Race after being framed for his wife's murder. Hennessey, in a bid to keep ratings up, needs a qualified driver to take on the role of Frankenstein, a very popular masked driver who died just after winning his fourth race. It's no secret that Hennessey, a corporate sociopath, framed Ames in order to bring him into the race. But Ames plays along when she dangles the promise of freedom if he wins just one race, bringing Frankenstein's total wins to five. "Death Race" is a great movie for one reason-- it doesn't try to be anything other than exactly what it is. Statham seems to walk a fine line between the buff action hero and someone who can still be credible in a serious role (see The Bank Job) while Allen has fun with a role that has her slumming it with such dialogue as "Okay co**sucker, f*** with me and we'll see who sh**ts on the sidewalk." Pure camp that somehow seems to work. The movie delivers almost non-stop action sprinkled with more than a few gross-out moments. I liked it for no other reason than it's what you put in when you want to put your brain on auto-pilot for a couple of hours and watch fast cars, fiery crashes and fist-fights. "Death Race" manages to somehow rise above- just- the sum of it's parts. I attribute this to Statham and Allen, both of whom keep their roles understated. Allen rarely shows more expression than a steely smirk (that I pray is not the result of too much botox) and Statham plays the role of Ames with the quiet charisma that has become his trademark. Tyrese Gibson also does a credible job as Statham's crazy opponent and Ian McShane adds a calm counterpoint as "Coach." It all adds up to a movie that is part reality show, part video game and good escapist fun.