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In 2012, amid economic chaos and high unemployment, Americans watch by the millions as criminals with life sentences race armored cars on Terminal Island. Two-thirds of the combatants die but the winner may earn his freedom. On the day he loses his job, steelworker Jensen Ames is arrested for his wife's murder. Sent to Terminal Island, he's offered an out by the steely and manipulative Warden Hennessey - race as the popular mask-wearing (but now dead) champion, Frankenstein, or rot in prison. Jensen makes the bargain. As the three-stage race approaches, he realizes that the whole thing may be a set up - can an anonymous man behind a mask get revenge and win his release? Written by
"Death Race" a lot of death, some racing, and a lot of fun.
"Death Race" puts me in a moral dilemma. Its deliberately trashy, shallow and inept, and for some reason I still like it. Making my feelings even more conflicted is the fact that it was directed by Paul W.S Anderson, a director who tries to turn movies into video games, and always fails. But as they say in Hollywood "you're only as good as your last picture" so Anderson is as good as anyone right now.
Not too far into the future our economy has collapsed (maybe McCain won), poverty reigns supreme and crime has become unstoppable. The prisons are filled beyond capacity, and Americas number one form of entertainment is watching the inmates fight to the death. The fights to the death got old and America needed something new. Death Race was invented. The concept is the same as death fighting, only you slug it out in an armor plated car with machine guns. The last man alive wins, and if you win enough races, you win your freedom.
Enter Jensen Ames, a former Nascar driver prior to his prison conviction, who loses his job when the local steel mill is closed. He goes home to his wife and infant daughter, only to have a masked man break in and kill his wife. Ames is framed for the crime and sent to prison.
Ames is sent to prison, where the warden Hennessey, played with excellent restraint by Joan Allen, informs him that he must replace Frankenstein, the most popular death racer, if he is ever to leave the prison. Ames agrees, and the games begin.
As a satire "Death Race" completely miss fires. The opening prologue informs us of the downfall of American society, and its never brought up again. Were informed that Death Race has become more popular then the Super Bowl with more then seventy million viewers but we never see one of those people watching. For some reason the drivers are paired with sexy women to navigate, even though they have a pit crew to do that. The women are in it for ratings, to make a statement about our own for sex as well as violence, but the viewers cant see the women inside the cars, so how do they help ratings? Just a few examples of the missed satire.
But this isn't an Oliver Stone movie. When you buy a ticket to see "Death Race", you want to see some death and some racing. And you get both, but mostly death. The racing scenes are electrifying. The combination of great stunt work, special effects and art direction give this films action the boost of adrenaline it craves. Andersons vision is to immerse us in a "Twisted Metal" video game, and he pulls it off with magnificent results. He captures the sadistic mentality of "Twisted Metal" perfectly. One driver turns his car around just to shoot another driver.
"You cant drive backwards" his partner remarks I beg to differ. That scene will remind "Grand Theft Auto" fans of many rampages.
Anderson keeps his eyes on the finish line and "Death Race" moves towards its conclusion in a heart beat. Despite my immersion in the story, it was way too predictable. The framed for murder set up is too obvious, and before you can even figure it out for yourself they give it away. And as for the ending, only a few things can happen at the end a prison movie, and you know what they are. But despite the twists you can see coming a mile away, they're still satisfying. "Death Race" is one of the few examples where a bad script can become a good movie.
The acting is wonderful all around. Jason Statham is a read deal action super star. He's got the physique of Van Damme and a million times the acting ability. His character's quest to see his daughter gives the film its only sliver of humanity, and all a prison movie needs is a sliver.
Joan Allen as the warden plays her character so tightly she could probably crack a cashew with her but cheeks. Hennessey is so tightly wound I often wondered is she was going to implode. And towards the end she gets a chance to deliver some perfectly timed profanity. Maybe the last four letter words you;; ever hear out of her mouth.
Newcomer Natalie Martinez has infinite sex appeal as Case, the sexy vixen who rides in the passenger seat beside Ames. But more then a pretty face she gets a chance to act, and proves shell be around for years to come.
Ian McShane is perfect as the simply named Coach. His job is to coach. His weathered face and gravelly voice perfectly fit's the prototype of a man who's spent a long time in prison. But he was good in a stinker like "Hot Rod", so its no surprise here.
Director Paul W.S Anderson has always attempted to make his films into video games, and "Death Race" really does play like a video game. That's the films intention and it works. It satisfies the blood lust lurking deep within us all. Society hasn't gotten to the point where we watch snuff films but watching fictional people kill each other is still loads of fun, and so is "Death Race".
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