August 28, 2008

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Death Race (R)
Cars, hot girls, explosions, killin’, explosions and a badass Joan Allen — Death Race, the remake of Death Race 2000, is a greasy little corndog with something for everyone.

Well, for everyone who thought that The Dark Knight and Tropic Thunder were just too thinky and introspective and that they’re in need of a little junk food escapism.

Jason Stratham plays a character who might as well be named Poor Schlub (actually it’s Jensen Ames). Here in Future America, the economy has collapsed, honest work is hard to come by and the prison population is skyrocketing (I swear, this is fiction). Jensen is laid off from his factory job but is still a stand-up enough guy to tell his mates about possible work “down at the docks.” If they are worried that the honest and muscle-bound Jensen will be competition for one of those dock jobs, they aren’t made to worry very long. On that very night he gets home to his loving wife (Janaya Stephens), who is the only one who really believes in him (of course), only to see her brutally murdered and himself framed for the crime.

Six months later, he’s sent to Terminal City, the prison run by Hennessey (Joan Allen), a snappy suit-wearing executive who’s part Hillary Clinton and part Terminator. She doesn’t tolerate swearing but has all the inmates quaking as she passes them in the yard. As all prisons are now for-profit businesses, Hennessey’s main concern is not the rehabilitation of her men but a money-making reality TV show called Death Race, which is a lot like traditional stock car racing but with murder. The cars go round and round but they can also shoot at each other and occasionally giant metal pillars pop up from the track and skewer them. The winner is the one who lives. And once he wins five times, a driver can go free. (And, yes, it’s always a he; the non-Joan Allens in this movie are all hot-girl navigators brought in from the women’s prison to give the race a little cleavage.)

Hey, what a coincidence, Jensen used to race cars. And hey, another coincidence, Hennessey is in need of an immediate replacement for a masked driver who is a fan favorite. Frankenstein (the masked driver’s stage name) has won four races, Hennessey tells Jensen. Win one and you can go free.

Because all racing movies need spunky, likeable pit crew characters, the devilishly awesome Ian McShane shows up as Jensen’s coach, and because every movie about competition to the death needs an almost likeable adversary, Tyrese Gibson struts through the movie as Machine Gun Joe, “Frankenstein’s” opponent.

I suppose it’s a measure of how much I don’t understand about car racing that even when the cars were shooting at each other I felt kind of antsy for all the driving around and around to end. I will say that arcade-game-like rankings and Street Fighter-esque characters did make the figuring-out-which-reinforced-with-steel-car-is-which process easier. But the purpose of this movie is not to glorify the beauty of auto racing, nor is it even really to tell the story of a dark future world full of unchecked corruption and greed. The purpose of this movie is explosions — explosions and geysers of blood shooting from spectacularly dismembered racers who shout obscenities at each other and cheer when their fellow racers run headlong into giant unmoving objects while girls who wear shirts three sizes too small arch their backs in the passenger seat. This movie is an extra large serving of salty greasy French fries, a bit queasy-making even as it is satisfying your need for something delightfully not good for you.

I haven’t seen the original Death Race, I have no sacred memories of David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone (though I will say this movie has made me curious). This Death Race is not offering any unique twists or shocking plot surprises (or even any particularly clever dialogue — though McShane does get a few chances to mug). But if you are looking for girls and cars and explosions, it absolutely delivers. C+

R for strong violence and language. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and written by Anderson (from the 1975 movie and screenplay), Death Race is an hour and 29 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal.