In 1975, schlock pioneer Roger Corman made cult movie history with Death Race 2000. Raw and intense, with the bulk of its tiny budget apparently spent on blood and gore, Corman's futuristic tale of automotive gladiators hunting pedestrians for sport not only served as the primary inspiration for George Miller's dystopian masterpiece Mad Max, it provided a young Sylvester Stallone with his first starring role.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, no earnest cinephile has ever mistaken Death Race 2000 for anything more than a fun, schlocky B-movie with a clever premise. Which is probably why the task of directing the film's 2008 update -- simply called Death Race -- fell to a filmmaker some regard as Corman's 21st-Century equivalent -- albeit one with bigger budgets and studio backing: Paul W.S. Anderson, the man responsible for candy-coated -- and critically-maligned -- horror/sci-fi hybrids like Alien vs.Predator and the Resident Evil series.
With Death Race, Anderson's succeeded in creating something many of us would have previously thought impossible: a remake of a B-movie that's inferior in almost every way to the original.
To be fair, Death Race is actually labeled by its producers as a "re-imagining" of Corman's 1975 version, but the plot is similar enough: in the near future, prisons are run by corporations for profit, and one of the many innovations they've introduced to the penitentiary system is a deadly competition that's now dystopian America's favorite sport: the Death Race.
Riding in souped-up, armored vehicles equipped with machine guns, napalm and other weapons, inmates race each other on a track littered with various hazards designed to make the competition even more treacherous. Gruesome fatalities abound, much to the delight of spectators who pay big bucks to watch via the internet. For their efforts, the inmates have the chance to win their freedom -- if they can survive long enough to win five races.
The always likeable Jason Statham stars as Jensen Ames, a one-time race-car driver falsely imprisoned for the murder of his wife and child. His primary adversary on the Death Race track is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a particularly ruthless racer whose penchant for raping other inmates is hinted at several times throughout the film.
Watching -- and often dictating -- all the grisly action from above is the cartoonishly sinister Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen, in what appears to be some kind of parody of her character in the Bourne movies). Focused solely on maximizing ratings, Hennessey clearly has no intention of setting any of the drivers free. When Ames proves particularly adept at winning races and cheating death, she decides to pull out all the stops to make sure he doesn't leave the track alive.
Director Anderson has stripped Death Race many of the elements that made Corman's original such a campy delight. His signature contribution to the update, it seems, is the introduction of several videogame-inspired elements to the racing competition, including various "power-ups" that give individual drivers brief advantages over their counterparts. It's like an apocalyptic, ultra-violent version of Mario Kart.
Otherwise, Death Race is pretty much a standard Paul W.S. Anderson movie: packed with over-the-top gore, execrable dialogue (ever heard Joan Allen call someone a "c---sucker?" Exhilarating!), bewildering storytelling lapses and even a few continuity errors. Key moments are telegraphed from miles away -- which is actually a welcome feature for the more squeamish audiences members, providing them ample time to turn away from the gore.
Among the Death Race cast, Ian McShane (HBO's Deadwood) alone stands out in the role of Statham's crusty, street-wise coach. Newcomer Natalie Martinez's performance as Statham's in-car navigator, on the other hand, is almost catastrophically awful -- I fear that her once-promising career as B-movie eye candy is already imperiled.
Disagree? Let me know at tleupp@Reelz.com.