Death Race Review
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Try as I might last weekend, I couldn’t find a DVD copy of the original Death Race 2000 (1975). Besides the uncomfortable reminder to renew my Netflix membership, this is unfortunate for two reasons. First, any comparisons I’m about to draw between it and its just-released remake, Death Race, must be based on a decade-old memory and a few quick Internet searches. Second, it deprives local viewers of the gallows-slapstick sense of humor that its descendent sorely lacks.

Both films follow the same basic plot. They take place in a dystopian future, where everything sucks and the only thing that’s keeping people from rioting is a series of bloody kill-or-be-killed automotive competitions, referred to as the “Death Race.” The long-time star of the race is the masked driver, Frankenstein, played in the original by David Carradine and in the remake by Jason Statham. The contestants drive souped-up, tricked-out cars with various weapons attached. And that’s about where the similarities end.

Fresh from the infamous low-budget studios of producer Roger Corman, Death Race 2000 was a brightly-lit celebration of trash cinema with a nagging undercurrent of social satire. By contrast, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race is a movie that’s really, really good at blowing stuff up. To be fair, it does so in some creative and spectacular ways. The vehicles themselves are extremely aggressive in design—armored up with scrap metal and sporting welded-on gattling guns and rocket launchers. When they go to race, it becomes immediately obvious where the bulk of the production money was spent.

The problem here, as with many films that prize action over all else, is that it takes itself far too seriously. Paul Bartel’s 1975 effort wore its status as a B-movie proudly. The cars looked like they came off an angry psychedelic merry-go-round, and the race was narrated by a hammy radio personality. The best example of that film’s aesthetic can be found in the rules governing the death race, as the announcer lists off the point values for running down adult men (20 points), women (10 points more than men, any age), teens (40 points), children (70 points), and seniors (100 points). It’s either an extremely disturbing indictment of a disposable society or just sickly funny, depending on your sensitivities.

Rather than the transcontinental pedestrian massacre of the original, Death Race features convicts who race around the local island prison track while they’re sold to the nation on a Web-based pay-per-view. It’s all a rather humorless affair, with Joan Allen turning in a passable performance as the iron-fisted warden. In fact, the only one who seems to realize that films like this are supposed to be fun is Ian McShane. He chews on his role as Frankenstein’s chief mechanic with the same gusto he displayed on HBO’s Deadwood, albeit with less creative profanity.

It’s the “hero,” Frankenstein, who really illustrates the ups and downs of this revised Death Race. Instead of Carradine’s hand-grenade wielding revolutionary, we have Statham as a former professional racer who’s framed for the murder of his wife and forced behind the wheel. As before, it’s an inherited title, with the switched-out drivers hidden behind Frankenstein’s signature mask. Statham can glower, brood, and fight with the best of them, but he doesn’t quite have the natural presence to make Frankenstein larger than life. It doesn’t help at all that the character has been updated into one of the many tough yet inherently decent guys doing very bad things to save their family, who have become such a cliché. As with the elimination of the pedestrian-points system, the film shies away from the nastier aspects of antiheroes and loses the extra kick that such daring provides.

Still, Death Race, however formulaic and politically sanitized it may be, is an awful lot of fun. There are plenty of viewers who just want to watch a movie where tough dudes and hot chicks drive mean cars until something blows up in a big way. If this one fails to achieve any depth beyond that, well, there’s always the original—at least, if you can find it.

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