Friday, 14 June 2024

B-movie stunts, action run up the score in 'Death Race'

DEATH RACE (Rated R)


Before we even get to the next summer Olympic Games in London, the post-apocalyptic world is upon us in “Death Race,” where senseless, mortal violence is a pay-per-view bonanza for a prison run by a private corporation.


The premise of extreme racing competition is inspired by Roger Corman’s classic B-movie “Death Race 2000.” Given false hope for early release, prisoners are fodder for reality TV bloodlust if they are willing to risk their lives to become road kill splashed across TV screens and the Internet.


Laconic action star Jason Statham, having established his bona fides wheeling fast cars in the “Transporter” series, is a natural candidate to race tricked-out cars. He could give Vin Diesel a run for his money.


At the opening of “Death Race,” Statham’s Jensen Ames is a steel worker getting laid off from his job, which is unfortunate because his prison days are behind him now that he has a supportive wife and baby daughter.


The fact that he was an excellent race car driver is not lost on the folks running the Terminal Island prison, where fatal car races are staged for the amusement of a bloodthirsty public hungry for increasingly violent TV programming.


On the same day he loses his job, Jensen is set up by masked men invading his home who intend to frame him for murder. Flash forward six months, and Jensen arrives at the bleak Terminal Island, an Alcatraz-like prison where escape is practically impossible.


The evil Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) runs the prison as if it were a caged ultimate fighting championship death match. Indeed, convict teams race customized vehicles that look like they were used in “Mad Max.” These cars are outfitted with more gadgets and weapons than James Bond’s Astin Martin.


Hennessey is raking in big bucks with her televised Death Race matches, where the winner is the only convict left standing. But she recently lost the most popular racer, the masked Frankenstein who racked up a series of wins with a souped-up Ford Mustang GT Fastback.


Jensen is picked as his replacement, only needing to don the rubber mask and stay alive by winning. Of course, the incentive for Jensen is that, by taking over Frankenstein’s place, if he wins the next race, he will be set free from prison and reunited with his daughter.


The proposition is fraught with peril, because Hennessey is untrustworthy and the race itself guarantees the death of all participants except the lone winner. Frankenstein’s nemesis is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a sneering, brooding con who doesn’t know that Jensen is being substituted for Frankenstein. All that matters to Machine Gun Joe is that he permanently eliminates whoever is driving Frankenstein’s car.


In case you can’t see it coming, “Death Race” is all about high-speed violent chases where competitors meet gruesome death, by impalement, explosions, and highly dramatized crashes.


Clocking in at under two hours, “Death Race” spends most of its time running cars at full-throttle around gritty industrial areas, where booby traps await the unsuspecting. During the down times without racing, the action shifts primarily to the usual prison yard conflicts.


Some time is also spent with Frankenstein’s dedicated pit crew, including Coach (Ian McShane), the seasoned con who figures out the ultimate game, and Lists (Fred Koehler), the bookish crew member who delivers helpful intelligence reports.


Because a movie of this type demands an attractive distaff presence, Terminal Island allows female prisoners to become navigators. Naturally, Jensen gets the best looker in Natalie Martinez’s Case, a tough cookie who likely gets the assignment because she has the best cleavage and wears tight jeans. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a B-movie heritage that must be upheld at all costs.


Yet, the toughest female role belongs to Warden Hennessey, who borders on the comedic only because she’s called upon to spew profane threats to those impeding her path, while remaining rigid and uptight in crisp business suits.


“Death Race” is pure mindless entertainment that requires you to check your brain at the door. I enjoy slam-bang car chases and spectacular crashes as much as the next guy, but after awhile it becomes all too repetitive, losing its edge and impulsiveness.


As the crashes and explosions pile up, “Death Race” looks increasingly like a violent video game. Meanwhile, much of the dialogue is laughable and lame, while the acting is purely pedestrian. “Death Race” could have been a better action picture.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


Morgan Spurlock, best known for exposing the perils of fast food consumption with “Super Size Me,” turns his investigate powers into a search for the world’s most dangerous terrorist, Osama bin Laden.


Now comes the DVD release of “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, which is billed as a tongue-in-cheek yet thought-provoking documentary.


Amazed by bin Laden’s continued success at evading capture, Spurlock set out to locate the terrorist by traveling through various international hotspots. I have not had the time to review this DVD, but I do know one thing: Spurlock does not answer the title of his documentary.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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