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"Death Race"

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
Written by Paul W.S. Anderson.
Starring Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane and Joan Allen.
Release Year:  2008
Review Date:  8/21/08


"Death Race" is based on the 1975 adventure film "Death Race 2000", which envisioned a future filled with TV shows so brutal, the only way to one-up them was to make a show featuring a half-dozen cars tasked with driving cross-country, scoring points for taking out innocent bystanders and their competitors.  The original was not that good, but that doesn't matter when it comes to coming up with original ideas--Hollywood generally doesn't do it, so they rehash these old movies, or books, or TV shows that weren't that good back in the 60s, or music concerts "directed" by so-called great directors.

At least with "Death Race", we get a film that attempts at no point to be original, instead giving us a prison/action/comedy film that is right up your alley if you are looking for a good time near the end of the summer for $6.  Here's what we know--if Joan Allen (three-time Oscar nominee and generally a classy actress) is slumming it in a period of her career where she doesn't need the extra paycheck, then you KNOW that everyone involved had one task: make "Death Race" a fun ride.

And, mostly, it is.

B-list action star extraordinaire Jason Statham leads the charge as Jensen Ames, a former NASCAR driver who is accused of murdering his wife and summarily whisked off to Terminal Island, a desolate island prison housing some of the world's nastiest baddies.  It's the distant future--uhh, 2012--and, now that prisons are all owned by private corporations, Terminal Island's warden/CEO, a woman named Hennessey (Allen), has come up with the idea for Death Race, a three-day competition featuring male inmate drivers and female inmate navigators driving each of their competitors down at the prison, broadcast pay-per-view to the public.  The timing of Ames's arrival at the island is a little too perfect, since just six months earlier, the prison's best driver, Frankenstein (the driver from the original movie, voiced here by David Carradine and played by him in the original), was killed just one race before he would have won his fifth race...and, freedom.

Besides Frankenstein, the only connection to the original film is the character name Machine Gun Joe (played here by Tyrese Gibson, who looks slightly different than the original Joe, Sylvester Stallone); otherwise, "Death Race" paves its own trail.  That's good and bad; limiting the race to just the track built at the prison must make for an easy shooting schedule, but it takes away from the cross-country idea from the original, which I liked.  Running down pedestrians was the original's trademark; that's gone here.  But, the world created in this film is still fun to watch; it's much more violent than the original, but that makes sense given the current state of've got to give us senseless violence and gore in order to get our attention for something like this, so I get the decision.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Resident Evil", "Event Horizon", "Alien vs. Predator") is a video game guy, so some of his choices clearly reflect that background, none more so that the idea to equip the cars of the races with weapons and gadgets that only turn on when you drive over them, like the mid-90s PlayStation game "WipeOut."

The supporting actors do their best to look interested, and Ian McShane (Swearengen from "Deadwood") hams it up perfectly as the crew chief of our man Ames.  We even get the unnecessary T&A factor, led by Natalie Martinez and other women in prison; the soundtrack is loud, the action bloody, and ending short-but-sweet.  The film never rises above mediocrity but does appear to relish in it...perfect for late August.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09