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Death Race
That Jason Statham movie that's not Crank or Transporter
Death Race
Jason Statham Stars in "Death Race."
OPENING WEEKEND: $12,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $43,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

July 12th, 2008: Ex-con Jensen Ames is forced by the warden of a notorious prison to compete in our post-industrial world's most popular sport: a car race in which inmates must brutalize and kill one another on the road to victory.

What to Expect: In 1975, schlockmeister producer Roger Corman released unto the world a little film called "Death Race 2000," starring Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine, about a futuristic competition in which contestants drove across country, picking off pedestrians for points and having at each other with any means at their disposal. It's something of a cult classic, depending on one's definition of the term, which made it inevitable that someone would get the bright idea to remake it. "Death Race," starring Jason Statham (The Italian Job, The Transporter) and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (a budding schlockmeister in his own right), is set to satisfy the summer quota of car chases, bare-knuckle brawling and physics-defying explosions.

If "Death Race" is a huge smash hit that finally catapults him onto the A-list (instead of the T-for-Testosterone-list) Jason Statham may end up in the unusual position of having Scientology to thank for it. In 2002, when Anderson was initially signed to direct, the film was to be shot from a script penned by the writer of "Pretty Woman" (seriously?) and Tom Cruise was attached to star. That all ended when Paramount filed for divorce from Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner, citing irreconcilable crazy. Universal picked up the film, Anderson wrote a new script and hired Statham to star. I can't help but wonder what the Cruise version of this film would have looked like. The original concept was much slicker and high-rent. Ferraris racing cross-country? Contestants in Armani? I also can't help but wonder if Cruise was really on board with this. It's hard to imagine him taking direction from the acclaimed helmer of such cinema gems as "Alien vs. Predator."

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Whatever the film could have been, the film that Anderson has produced looks pretty hard-core. The aesthetic is what one might call Thunderdome Chic, full of industrial wastelands and home-rigged cannons mounted on cars. Statham stars as Jensen Aimes, a NASCAR racer framed for his wife's murder, which gets him sent to a supermax prison (I'm not spoiling anything here, this much is revealed in the trailer) where the warden (Joan Allen) has invented the ultimate reality show. Prisoners get the chance to compete in a race-to-the-death in which the last man standing (driving?) gets a get-out-of-jail-free card, literally. Her little empire is bigger than the Super Bowl, presumably with megabucks to be made, but these darned inmates just aren't cutting it anymore, so she's resorted to alternative recruitment methods. Specifically, Aimes was intended to race as Frankenstein, a masked racer incredibly popular with the audience who seems unkillable, the catch being that he isn't. They just keep replacing the man behind the mask. Aimes must race for revenge for his dead wife as well as to save his own hide when the warden decides that it'd be better for everyone involved (meaning her) if he came down with a good case of being-killed before he could spill the beans about her shady dealings. Ian McShane plays Aimes' racing coach and prison-garage Q, no doubt remaining awesome while doing so. Tyrese Gibson co-stars as an enemy racer and Natalie Martinez as Aimes' "navigator." The navigators are female co-pilots assigned to each racer, brought in from a local women's prison (the inmates of which seem to consist entirely of supermodels) in what is probably that most blatant, nonsensical ploy to get some boobages into a testosterone flick I have ever seen.

One of my long-held beliefs is that Jason Statham ought to be a bigger star than he is. His career started off with a powerful one-two punch when he scored supporting roles in two successive post-Tarantino street-smart cult favorite quotables: "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." Most Americans know him best as Handsome Rob in "The Italian Job" (a role he could soon be reprising in the sequel "The Brazilian Job") but even before taking the wheel of that Mini Cooper, he'd already turned the corner into his current niche as a granite-jawed linchpin for testosterone-and-octane action flicks by starring in "The Transporter." And then its sequel. And then the same-exact-demographic film "Crank." And then its sequel. Did I mention he's signed on for the third "Transporter" film?

My point is that he's charismatic, buff, great in action sequences and has a smirky humor to him that seems like it should have taken him farther, but "Death Race" is keeping him squarely inside his little box. I wish he'd step out of it. Then again, that strategy didn't work for Vin Diesel. Maybe Statham has the right idea.

If you're getting the sense that I don't have high hopes for this film, then you win the plush banana. I'm a fan of Statham's and I enjoy a good action popcorn flick as much as the next person, but this film's pedigree doesn't exactly inspire me to wax rhapsodic about its chances for box office success.

First, it's a remake. Scratch that... a reimagining, which is Hollywoodese for "we're strip-mining the concept and tossing anything we don't want to bother with so it barely resembles what it's supposed to be a remake of." The original was a video-game movie before there were video games. Its lasting contribution to society was that whole "points for hitting pedestrians" concept. This updated version seems to be borrowing heavily from "The Running Man," especially given prison-inmates-as-contestants angle. Anderson doesn't deny this comparison; in fact, he embraces it. He considers this new film to be more of a prequel to the 1975 film, which featured a cross-country race sanctioned by the government and a fully-integrated part of society. Perhaps this is how it started, in a prison, later expanding to become the pedestrian-targeting free-for-all that Stallone and Carradine drove in. That's certainly one way to spin it.

The nods to the original are being kept to a minimum. Carradine has a cameo, but not Stallone. The framing concept is different. All of that is intentional. And don't try to draw comparisons to early summer's biggest flop, either. Anderson claims that his film is the anti-"Speed Racer." Instead of spending a week making cars and a year making it look pretty in post-production, he's spent a year building cars and in-camera effects. Scant CGI here, we're talking real stunts and real fire and not a green screen in sight. For an audience burned by the Star Wars prequels that pretty clearly communicated its displeasure by staying away from "Speed Racer" in droves, this could be just what the doctor ordered... or it could be just another throwback to "Smokey and the Bandit."

Frankly, I don't think the fact that it's a remake will be much of a problem. I'm sure that the original has its fans, but how much of a demographic can they possibly represent? I'm a giant movie geek and I confess I wasn't aware of the 1975 film. This film will live and die by its own strengths. Those strengths are likely to be the stunts, the action and the screen kick-assery of Statham. Even if all of the above are spectacular, many moviegoers will probably feel like they've seen all this before. Many, many times.

Anderson isn't exactly on the short list for the Director's Guild Awards. He's carved out a career making video-game films ("Mortal Kombat" and "Resident Evil") and science-fiction B-movies (Event Horizon). That isn't to say these films haven't made money; they have. But they've done so in spite of themselves, by appealing to guys with disposable income who spend it on Playstations. One might surmise that his directorial decisions have been market-savvy and pragmatic, but then again, this is the man who made "Alien vs. Predator" to get a PG-13 rating, a move so disastrous for the film that the studio actually marketed its successor by using its R-rating as a selling point. Still, if you want some stuff blowed up real good and some guys' skulls cracked, you could do a lot worse.

In Conclusion: My prediction isn't so much that this film will fail as that it will be lost in the shuffle. It's a crowded summer, and some of the big tentpole flicks are sure to have long legs that will extend over this film's release. It may end up being a great popcorn flick, but a forgettable one, and one that people will ultimately decide to wait to see on DVD. I haven't even finished this article and I think I've already forgotten that this film exists.

Those who go to see this film will probably enjoy it. Test screenings produced the kind of backhanded positive response where audience members say things like "It was cool for what it was." The question is, will the film be able to get enough people in the seats to justify the production?

Actually, the real question is: what the heck is Joan Allen doing in this film? Did she lose a bet?

Similar Titles: Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Mad Max
August 22nd, 2008 (wide)
December 23rd, 2008 (DVD)

Universal Pictures

Paul W.S. Anderson

Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, David Carradine

Total: 60 vote(s).

Action & Adventure, Science Fiction, Suspense

Click here to view site

Rated R for strong violence and language.

89 min




Death Race at Trailer Addict

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