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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Death Race

For anyone who has lived in Boston, New York or L.A., Death Race is going to seem like a flashback to one of those drivers’s ed “Courtesy of the Road” movies they showed you in health class when you were a freshman in high school. In those cities, the rule of driving is to basically avoid pedestrians with walkers, wheelchairs and baby strollers, and if you’ve managed that between home and your destination you’ve proven yourself an above-average driver.

It’s said that the Geico™ gecko will only provide fly over quotes in these places because the driving is so fierce, so don’t expect anybody in these urban meccas to rush out to see
Death Race. If it’s going to make any money, it’s going to be in places like Vermont and North Dakota where people actually follow driving laws. For them, Death Race is a fantasy instead of the simple reality millions call “rush hour” every day.

For those who don’t know,
Death Race is a new movie now playing at the Essex Cinemas that is based on a 1975 film with the clever title Death Race 2000, which must have seemed like a lifetime away back in the day, but here we are and beyond, so director and writer Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil: Extinction) was smart enough this time out to drop the timeframe entirely and make his gas-fueled gladiators ageless so future generations can enjoy them guilt-free for decades to come. The story has changed dramatically since the original; this time instead of dealing with a coast-to-coast race, we are faced with a future in which America is in economic chaos, and the major entertainment in the nation seems to be an ongoing “Pay Per View” event run by a warden Hennessey (Joan Allen; The Bourne Ultimatum) out of the confines of her prison on Terminal Island. Since the facility has only one entrance and exit, it makes for the perfect place to run a course for the infamous Death Race on cable tv.

Death Race itself is a race with jacked-up autos customized by inmates themselves who are allowed all sorts of weapons at their disposal to knock off their opponents since this is, after all, meant to be a race to the death (duh!). The rules state that any inmate who can win five races in a row will also then win his freedom, so these players have a real incentive to wipe out the competition. There’s only one problem though. With Hennessey raking in as many as 70 million viewers at $250 each per race, she doesn’t have much reason to want her prize players to leave the game ~ at least not alive.

Case in point is the masked man called Frankenstein. He has already won four races. At least that’s what audiences believe. Since he has always been masked, it’s been easy enough to replace those players masquerading as Frankenstein who have died from their injuries, but now, at
race five, the Warden wants a “special” contender to fill the role. That would be Jensen Ames (Jason Statham; War), a family man who is living a modest life with his wife and baby daughter while struggling to keep a roof over their heads. He also happens to be a former professional auto racer, and, let’s just say Hennessey makes sure at least he is guaranteed a roof over his head for years to come, and in exchange he is reluctantly drafted to drive in the role of Frank, which you know he has to do because he is the star of the movie and so he has to get out there and drive like a bat out of hell to make this movie pop.

Ames’ biggest threat in the race is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson; Transformers), who has won three races and is determined not to get offed by ‘Frankenstein.’ In the heat of the movie, with all the crashing, smashing, and bullets, rockets, smoke, oil, and napalm exploding, it didn’t occur to me how exactly Ames and Joe could have been past competitors in a race in which everyone is killed but the last man standing. Hmmm. Wouldn’t that be technically impossible? No matter, the back-and-forth jousting between these two is the central focus of the film and for those who secretly go to NASCAR rallies hoping to see crashes, blood, death, and destruction, then this movie will have you in motor head heaven. The action is phenomenal, the battle between the mini-tanks is non-stop, and the occasional ‘surprises’ the drivers find along the track will keep the viewers’ nerves jangled. The big question for me, though, personally, was how in the world did Joan Allen end up in this movie? Okay, okay, it’s a perfectly fine slam, bam, revenge, ‘me-man-and-full-of-testosterone’ kind of movie, which is terrific for what it is, but Joan Allen? Really? I even googled her to see if she was married to the writer or producer or someone else connected to the film because this just doesn’t seem like her style. It’s like finding Dame Judy Dench in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Still, she is icy enough to be the predictably cruel Warden, but she is so fragile she looks like an inmate could snap her in two with one crack. Maybe in the sequel, if there is one, they’ll cast Dame Judy as the new Warden. She has a little more meat on her bones.

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