Death Race opens with an almost too classy intro text (reminiscent of Escape from New York, intentionally I’m sure) informing the viewer in 2012, the U.S. economy collapses. Death Race opened in August 2008… is Paul W.S. Anderson now a seer? With all-powerful, insulated corporations and cops beating protesters… it’s the perfect movie for this year. It’s just too bad they were using rubber bullets instead of Tasers, so I guess Anderson isn’t always spot-on in his fortune telling.
All joking aside, Death Race has to be Anderson’s best film. He manages to fully embrace his own mediocrity, but here he infuses it with a more capable cast than usual and his action scenes are good. They aren’t exciting, but they’re masterfully executed, which is more than enough to engage the viewer. It’s the only time I’ve ever thought of Anderson in the same vein as Carpenter–but whereas Carpenter was inventive, Anderson’s simply a competent recycler of other people’s better ideas.
There isn’t a single interesting thing Anderson does in Death Race, except maybe go soft for his ending. But it’s slick and well-produced.
The key is Jason Statham. Statham can make Anderson’s dialogue sound good. There are other good performances in the movie, but only Statham’s delivery rises above the material. The secret to Statham’s solid performance–as usual for him–is his ability to appear to be an intelligent actor but never condescend the material. The more respectable actors in the cast–Joan Allen and Ian McShane–are both aware of Death Race‘s artistic import (specifically, its lack thereof). Allen seems to be slumming for fun and has a great time, while McShane is miscast. While he’s fine, he doesn’t embrace the movie’s absurdity. He isn’t having fun and all Death Race is about is fun.
Another solid performance comes from Tyrese Gibson. I’ve never seen him in anything before–wait, I guess he was in Transformers but didn’t make an impression; his performance is strong. He’s a likable antagonist. He doesn’t manage to escape all of Anderson’s lousy dialogue–in some ways, he has the worst of it–but his good moments far exceed his bad. Anderson always ends Gibson’s scenes with some exit line and the exit lines are always terrible. Some of them even look like they were added in post-production, which is unfortunate.
Death Race actually comes close–during the racing scenes, where Anderson is running a pure filmic adrenaline line–to being a good movie. Because these are the best scenes and are unrelated to the larger story, it’s obviously not going to work out. But they’re good enough to convince some magic might occur. After all, he did see the future of the economy. The ending disappoints in some ways–despite handling Allen so well, he objectifies Natalie Martinez (after spending the whole movie not treating her in that manner). I forgot about Martinez above; she’s okay, some bad scenes, some good… but better than expected. Just like the rest of the movie.
Wait, I’m wrong. Anderson does do something really interesting with Death Race. He implies Gibson’s character is gay. One scene gives Gibson the opportunity to deny it and he doesn’t. It’s a bold move for a b-movie pseudo-blockbuster….
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; screenplay and screen story by Anderson, based on a screenplay by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith and a story by Ib Melchior; director of photography, Scott Kevan; edited by Niven Howie; music by Paul Haslinger; production designer, Paul D. Austerberry; produced by Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Roger Corman and Paula Wagner; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Jason Statham (Jensen Ames), Joan Allen (Hennessey), Ian McShane (Coach), Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe Mason), Natalie Martinez (Elizabeth Case), Max Ryan (Pachenko), Jacob Vargas (Gunner), Jason Clarke (Ulrich), Frederick Koehler (Lists), Justin Mader (Travis Colt), Robert LaSardo (Grimm) and Robin Shou (14K).