Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Death Race

Most likely the biggest budgeted film Roger Corman ever received a producing credit on, DEATH RACE is a remake of one of Corman’s most popular films. In 1975’s DEATH RACE 2000, directed by Paul Bartel (CANNONBALL) from a screenplay by Robert Thom (WILD IN THE STREETS) and Charles B. Griffith (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and a story by Ib Melchior (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), competitors in a cross-country road race earned points by mowing down pedestrians with their tricked-out cars. Leave it to hack writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (SOLDIER) to remove the one element that everyone remembers about the original film and replace it with...nothing, really.

In removing DEATH RACE 2000’s central gimmick, Anderson has also removed its clever social satire and, thus, its reason for existing. What’s left is a thoroughly uninteresting melange of loud noises (the soundtrack is too graceless to be called “sound”) and blurry violence. No longer a cross-country race, Anderson’s Death Race is merely a bunch of cars — still tricked out, at least — driving around in circles behind the walls of a prison called Terminal Island (also the title of a better exploitation film of the 1970s).

The newest inmate is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an unemployed steelworker and former race car driver who is framed for the murder of his wife. Anderson doesn’t miss a prison cliche — cafeteria fights, cruel guards, loss of dignity, threats of solitary. The evil warden (another cliche), played by a slumming Joan Allen (THE CRUCIBLE), needs Ames to drive in the next Death Race as a substitute for the masked champion Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine, the star of DEATH RACE 2000), who was killed in his last race.

Ian McShane (DEADWOOD) and Fred Koehler (KATE & ALLIE) serve dual functions: Ames’ pit crew and disseminators of information about the race and its drivers to the audience. Natalie Martinez (UNDER THE DOME) plays Ames’ sexy navigator, though why a driver who’s just going around in circles needs a navigator is left vague in Anderson’s screenplay. As is the warden’s reason for needing Ames to pretend to be Frankenstein. We’re told millions of people are watching Death Race, yet we see none of them or their supposed idolization of Frankenstein.

Unlike DEATH RACE 2000, which contributed food for thought to the dark humor and violence, it seems very little thinking went into crafting the remake. The races are streamed over the internet for the viewing pleasure of its bloodthirsty viewers, but satirizing reality television is low-hanging fruit. Anderson’s race choreography is poor — you rarely know the geography of the racers or even who’s winning — but exploding cars is always entertaining. The well-executed CGI is seamlessly blended with excellent stuntwork, which manages to keep this dumb movie watchable.

1 comment:

Grant said...

Since a lot of remakes are also inside-out versions of the originals, I've always thought that a remake of DEATH RACE 2000 should be about pedestrians terrorizing drivers.
(I live in a really car-obsessed part of the country, so a film like that would be a little "cathartic" for me.)