Jesse Hassenger went and ate hisself some popcorn.
A recent New York magazine blog piece on the awfulness of August movies that managed to completely miss the pleasures of the year’s most fun dumping ground (take that, January and early September!). Their rundown of August movies for the past fifteen years was comprehensive, to be sure, but made little distinction between garden-variety trash and surprisingly entertaining trash; in separating the wheat from the chafe, the writers, with a few exceptions, picked quasi-classy action movies like Hero over superior drive-in fodder. In other words, they probably couldn’t tell the difference between an awesome late-summer Jason Statham B-movie and a lousy late-summer Jason Statham B-movie.
The late-summer Jason Statham B-movie has become an annual tradition; Death Race is his fourth low-rent action picture in as many years. The only judgment that really matters, then, is that it’s a lot better than War, his uneventful Jet Li team-against, but nowhere near as awesome as Transporter 2 or Crank (sequels to both will have arrived by this time next year, neither in his traditional Labor Day-ish comfort zone). It’s actually a remake of a supposed B-movie classic, unseen by me; unfortunately for anyone who recalls it fondly, the man doing the remaking is Paul W.S. Anderson, himself a mid-to-late August veteran (Mortal Kombat; Event Horizon; Alien vs. Predator; essentially, he’s about half of New Yorkâ€˜s catalog of shame).
Admittedly, the goofy premise is evergreen.
In a corporation-driven near-future dystopia, an overcrowded prison
system entertains the downtrodden masses with Death Race, a
televised/webcasted battle royale between prisoners driving racecars
that could be described as souped up, assuming the existence of bullet
and napalm soup. Statham enters the picture as a sensitive tough guy
framed for his wife’s murder, and coerced into racing for his freedom.
That’s about all there is to it, but following, as it would in any August of the past couple decades, a summer of hype and elaboration, Death Race has the advantage of directness. This isn’t one of those action movies that pads a few minutes of wan mayhem with lots of glowering. When the race’s three (pointless) cycles are laid out for Statham, the movie is really saying: Hey, audience. There will be three big action set pieces with lots of smashing and crashing. The rest of the time, you’re on your own. But we’ve got you covered for at least forty minutes.
Anderson is an unquestionable hack, capable of turning millions of dollars into a cheap music video, but his largely video game-inspired aesthetic is less offensive and more enjoyable trash than a lot of his big-budget counterparts (he’s never made a movie as boring as half of Rob Cohen’s filmography). If you do take refuge inside of Death Race‘s incoherent rattling, you can be thankful for small favors, like the way movie downplays the audience-indicting quasi-satire, via Joan Allen’s semi-inspired slumming as the prim but ruthless prison warden/Death Race commissioner, squeezing some juice from the story’s ludicrous frame.
If only Anderson had the sense to fill out the prisoner’s roles with that same poor-man’s-Bruckheimer gusto. We get some Ian McShane, but that’s it; no Delroy Lindo, no William Fichter, no Jon Voightâ€¦ not even easy choices like Danny Trejo or Vinnie Jones. At least there’s Statham, sneakily ripped as ever, his charm deployed less strategically than in the Transporter series, but an anchor nonetheless. Will Smith may have confirmed his status as Mr. July, but I’ll take Mr. August any summer.