Movie News & Reviews

'Death Race' runs close to empty

I may be going out on a limb here, but "Death Race" appears to be a cautionary tale that shows what could happen if we put another Republican in the White House, as if it's saying the years of bad news will continue to bite us in the behind come 2009.

Set just four years in the future, where the U.S. economy has collapsed (wait a minute, it hasn't already!?) and corporations control prisons (once again, that hasn't happened!?), the most popular reality-TV show has inmates on a maximum-security island hop in tricked-out, reinforced monster mobiles and race to the death. Whoever makes it to the finish line alive gets their freedom.

The island's newest inmate (Jason Statham), a former speedway champ who may or may not have been framed for the murder of his wife, gets roped in by the penitentiary's warden (a scarily seductive Joan Allen) to slip into the role of the show's most popular, incarcerated racer, the masked Frankenstein, last seen burned to a crisp. If he wins, he lives and leaves to see his little girl again. But even he knows it's not going to be that easy.

For those still not well-versed in grindhouse cinema, "Race" is a remake of Roger Corman's equally trashy, '70s cult flick "Death Race 2000," so it's difficult not to view this movie other than the scabrous exploitation actioner it's so geared to be. And yet, this "Race" seems more like the 8,000th redoing of "The Running Man," a dead horse I don't understand why Hollywood has to keep beating.

Like practically every movie that discount action hero Statham appears in this time of year, "Race" is Chinese-food cinema. When you're viewing it, you can't get enough of what you're consuming. And yet, a couple of hours later, it practically evaporates from your memory. Its sensationalism is so fleeting, it's dang near tragic. The race scenes director Paul W.S. Anderson (the "Resident Evil" movies) composes are compulsively cataclysmic in their scope. It's like the bigger and bulkier the carnage, the more Anderson thinks we'll appreciate it. (It's like an action movie for Sam's Club members -- which I believe I still am, by the way.)

As you'd expect, the action sequences are all the movie has going for it. Although the cast includes Ian McShane, sounding as though "Deadwood" never got canceled, as Statham's ornery pit-crew coach, Tyrese Gibson as Statham's gay-thug archnemesis, and Natalie Martinez supplying the eye candy as Statham's women's prison navigator, they certainly aren't given a lot to work with character-wise. They just say dialogue that'll move things forward to the next race scene, where everything will be nice and boomy.

"Death Race" is a loud and jangly spectacle. But it's movie junk with a special bonus: you actually get to hear Joan Allen curse. I certainly didn't get that with the last two "Bourne" movies.