Watching a Paul W. S. Anderson movie is always a struggle. Gifted with one can’t miss big budget B movie after another, he does nothing with ideas like Alien vs. Predator, Soldier, Resident Evil, and the holy grail of overqualified actors picking up a paycheck, Event Horizon. How he screws these no-brainers up is not only frustrating (he has only been forced to make a PG-13 movie once, Alien vs. Predator) but mystifying. What does a video game adaptation like Resident Evil require? Well written characters? No. Good dialogue? Absolutely not. A thoroughly detailed backstory and plot progression? Not a chance. Creative, gory kills? The only thing you have to get right.
So it is obvious that one must come into a movie like Anderson’s not-really-a-remake remake of Paul Bartel’s classic cheapie, Death Race 2000, which took the notion of killing old people for sport to a new high, with trepidation and very, very low expectations. Anderson got rid of the cross-country race idea, the getting points for running over random citizens element (which provided much of the black humor for the original), and added a prison and dusty, dystopian future. Casting Jason Statham as the innocent family man framed for murder seemed like Anderson was going in the right direction. No one currently working does better with trashy, stupid material (such as Crank and Transporter 2) while keeping a straight face amongst endless idiocy. But Anderson makes a much bigger mistake right away. The future he’s created has no jobs, almost complete poverty, and is quite ugly looking, making a viewer wonder what exactly is gained by living in it. We never see anyone benefiting, no rich people enjoying their material possessions, nothing to fight for. So why would Statham, on his last day on a job, join in on a riot? What are they rioting against? Money doesn’t appear to help out in any way. Why would Statham bother to have a child in this misery inducing place that has no redeeming qualities? When he gets to prison, everyone talks about getting out, escaping or whatnot, but what would they escape to? No food, money, or anything to prosper from.
It is an odd hole to have in your story, where there’s no apparent motivation apart from being in a movie that the characters would want to succeed. Even the prison, run by a corporation who engages the prisoners in a Running Manesque prisoner race, seems to have no benefit to being corrupt. Joan Allen, suffering from a weird facelift which was supposed to make her desirable, is the snake-like villainess who conspires to get rid of any opportunity for the prisoners to earn their freedom, but she works in a crappy, tiny office that is spare and cheap looking (apart from the plethora of cameras which she uses to spy on the inmates), and her anger is clearly misdirected, as it should have been aimed at her interior designer. Allen’s role is just a series of pained reaction shots anyway, a slight variation on her recent performance in The Bourne Ultimatum, where every five minutes, as Jason Bourne gets closer or figures out something new, the director cuts to a packed office of perplexed government operatives, wondering who could have broken into whatever area or killed whatever person, and then he cuts to Allen who utters “It’s Bourne!” as if, three movies in, it would have been a surprise at that point. In the case of Death Race, Allen looks up at one of her cameras, smirks, and tries to look tough and pissed off at the same time, annoyed at whatever trap Statham has escaped from. But her face betrays her, unable to stretch enough to accomplish its goal. Lucky for her, the snarling dialogue is left for the “evil” Tyrese Gibson and the embarrassing tag lines/puns, normally reserved for the chief bad guy, are uttered by a totally overqualified Ian McShane.
McShane plays the chief engineer of Statham’s car, who keeps us in the dark about the way the race track is laid out, so it all goes by in a blur without meaning much, as random obstacles pop up one after the other. If you’re going to make a movie as low-rent (yet expensive) as Death Race it would probably be best to explain what weapons or tools are available for our heroes, especially if you want to have any sort of suspense in a scene. That Anderson bungles this simple thought is not a surprise, he also seems to think that the best way to fix a speeding car is to indiscriminately bang it with a wrench.
There’s no joy or fun in Death Race at all, the movie is expectedly predictable and it should be crowdpleasing, but Anderson apparently doesn’t know how to provide us with interesting looking deaths, and tries to smooth over the gaps with a lot of 1980’s sounding heavy metal and chintzy looking CGI. We don’t even get the satisfaction of the villains dying in a horrific way; the whole thing is played at a distance, making it feel rather thrown together and last minute.
Anderson gets so much wrong that he can’t even deliver the obvious point of these The Longest Yard-style prison movies. The underlying message of Death Race is not that power corrupts, but rather, at least according to Anderson, aging is bad, and you (Joan Allen) will be punished for growing older. Sounds like he should have remade Logan’s Run instead.