Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DEATH RACE (2008): How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Watching a Commercial for a Video Game

When I entered the theater on Saturday to watch DEATH RACE (2008), starring Jason Statham, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I fully expected the film to be as bad, if not worse, than Uwe Boll's IN THE NAME OF THE KING -- which also starred Jason Statham. What I forgot was that DEATH RACE is directed by "geek-media to film" über-director Paul W.S. Anderson (MORTAL COMBAT) -- who should in no way be confused with arthouse über-director Paul T. Anderson -- and in my mind having Anderson as a director is a positive thing.

One might ask why that is a positive thing. To answer, I will say that Anderson has in the past done what I thought was a complete impossibility. He directed an entertaining movie based upon a video game intellectual property, the aforementioned MORTAL COMBAT. He thankfully had nothing to do with the abomination that is MORTAL COMBAT 2. Anderson's ability to translate property from one geek medium to another isn't a one time fluke either. His 2002 screen adaptation of RESIDENT EVIL, starring his fiancé Milla Jovovich, was as entertaining an adaptation of a video game as has yet been made. I also believe that his Kurt Russell vehicle SOLDIER and his Gothic SF film EVENT HORIZON are highly underrated. Anderson's films are by no stretch of the imagination classics to be cherished, but they tend to be fun popcorn fare -- and to be honest that is what I hoped for in my heart of hearts when I went to see the new DEATH RACE.

I should have kept this in mind when I walked into the theater on Saturday afternoon, because I left the theater entertained.

Anderson's DEATH RACE begins with an opening scroll reminiscent of ROAD WARRIOR's description of how the world changes from the modern day -- a description seemingly based almost word for word on the future history described in Steve Jackson Games CAR WARS DELUXE EDITION. Essentially, the US economy collapses in 2012 (Corman's classic had the world's economy collapse), unemployment is ridiculously high, crime soars, corporations take over the prison system, the world watches its first "prison death match," eventually they become bored with fights to the death, and finally the DEATH RACE is born to satisfy their bloodlust.

Whew! That was quite a sentence. Needless to say, the script by Anderson attempts -- though ultimately fails -- to address one of my concerns regarding the remake. He also ties this film to the original by using David Carradine to do the voice over for Frankenstein in the film's opening race. I wanted some social commentary about our society's long history of bloodlust and Anderson hinted he would give that commentary to me. In the end though, he skipped over that part of the narrative to focus on the story of the racer, which brings me to the actual narrative of the film.

Anderson's script views like a bizarre combination of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE LONGEST YARD (the Burt Reynold's version), and the original DEATH RACE 2000. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a down on his luck blue collar worker who loses his job at the local steel mill when that mill closes down -- as an aside, I knew I was watching fiction when the film depicted a working steel mill within the US. Ames returns home, his family is murdered, he gets framed for the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Shortly after his arrival at the prison, he is made an offer by the warden (Joan Allen). She needs him, you see. The fans love Frankenstein, but Frankenstein died at the end of the last race -- a race that he won according to the pay-per-view telecast. As incentive to participate in the race, Ames is offered his freedom. Frankenstein has already won four races, if he wins a fifth then he gets to go free and return to society. Ames, as the new Frankenstein, would only have to win one race to be reunited with his daughter.

The script is all pretty standard stuff and doesn't offer any of the criticism I had hoped for, but it does serve as a skeleton (even though a weak one) for what turns out to be an entertaining film.

What makes the film entertaining is the fact that it unabashedly acknowledges the fact that there will be a video game based on the film. The best example of this occurs during the first race, and all subsequent races, when the audience is shown how the various offensive and defensive devices on the vehicles are activated. In order to activate their weapons, the drivers must drive over lit up sword icons on the track. Shield icons activate the defensive items on the vehicles, and skulls activate death traps which destroy the vehicle that activated the skull. As the film portrays it, the DEATH RACE is a kind of bloody and fatal version of MARIO CART -- silly laughter and all. One might say the DEATH RACE is live action WARIO CART. I could almost hear Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) shouting, "I'ma Machina Guna Joe-a...I'ma Gonna Weeen."

Though the premise might seem cartoony, the action is anything but. Anderson brings his signature style of quick cuts and hyperkinetic action to the screen. The action sequences run the gamut from fast cars with guns blazing to Ames opening up a can of whoop ass on those who annoy him.

One only wishes he had taken things a little bit further. It's one thing to acknowledge as a part of your film that a video game will be made about it. It is another thing to use that as an opportunity to criticize overly violent video games. I'm not one that is overly worried about the influence of violent games on society, but I enjoy a good SF criticism as much as anyone. Anderson drops the ball with regard to the video game criticism by both choosing MARIO CART style games as the basis for his action and by not taking the violence far enough...or at least not showing how much the fans love and obsess about the violence. It isn't enough to hear that the DEATH RACE has 70 million subscribers, I want to hear some obsessed fans talk about the race. Better yet, have those same hard working steel workers at the beginning of the film talk about their favorite racers. Both the original story and the first movie showed us the world outside the race, or at least gave glimpses. Anderson's DEATH RACE seems to take place outside the surrounding world and its fans are only those who order the streaming video on the internet.

It isn't only in the area of social criticism where Anderson drops the ball. Most disappointing to me was the fact that Robin Shou, who plays the character 14K, is never allowed to showcase his significant movie martial arts skills. Shou was one of the highlights of Anderson's MORTAL COMBAT, and it is nice to see him on the screen, but one laments that the film spends so much time focused on Statham that Shou never gets his time in the spotlight.

I could continue with a long list of places where Anderson failed to deliver on the promise of the film's potential, especially aggravating since Anderson has been wanting to do this project for more than a decade, but such a list would undermine my actual feelings regarding the film.

I have written, and said, many times that sometimes the only important thing about a film is whether or not it entertains you. Not all film is meant to be high art and DEATH RACE certainly falls into that category of film.

To play around a little with something I wrote above, "Anderson has done something I never would have never thought possible. He has made an entertaining movie that seems to have as its sole purpose the promotion of an affiliated video game." If the video game can live up to its big screen commercial, it should be a heck of a fun time.


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