Snobbery with Violence
It's that special time of the year when people all over the world settle down into their seats, help themselves to a handful of popcorn, and relax in anticipation of the latest movie to star the one and only Jason Statham. Regular readers will be fully aware of the genuine pleasure I derive from watching Mr S do his thing.
Which is why one of the banes of my life is the fact that the people in charge of booking films at the city centre multiplexes in my town more often than not flatly refuse to show Statham movies at all, at least not ones where he isn't propping up some past-it action derelict or in some other way sharing the screen. Are Mr Statham’s vowels just not up to scratch for Oxford cinemas? Are straightforward action movies just not good enough for the bookers round here? It makes me want to bellow and run amuck behind the popcorn counter. Still, one must face facts and accept that I am simply unable to bring you a review of Mechanic: Resurrection this week.
So, to hell with it, this week I will be reviewing Death Race, a Jason Statham movie from 2008, not because it is any good or because he is particularly effective in it, but just because I want to review a Statham movie and I'm not going to let the prejudices of film-bookers against a certain kind of film get in my way. Yup, I'm not afraid to stand up and be counted when it comes to a matter of principle.
Anyway, Death Race sees Mr S teaming up with the king of boneheaded action cliches, Paul WS Anderson, in a remake of the classic 1975 film Death Race 2000. Well, sort of a remake, inasmuch as some of the characters have the same names and it features cars. The rest is...
Well, the first dip into the Big Book of Cliches comes when we get a set of opening captions describing how the US economy imploded in 2012 (slightly ironic given this movie came out near the height of the financial crisis), all prisons were privatised, and gladiatorial combat between convicts became popular mass entertainment - especially Death Race, which involves putting dangerous inmates into heavily armed and armoured high-performance vehicles and letting them battle all the way to the finish line, or to death, whichever comes first.
As is fairly common with a 21st century Paul WS Anderson movie, you are instantly struck with an urgent sense of how utterly implausible all of this is, and how cobbled-together the premise feels. However, things progress and we meet good-guy steelworker Jensen Ames (Mr Statham), whose place of employment is being shut down, leading to a bit of industrial relations tension. This really has nothing to do with the plot, but does allow Mr S to do his 'I'm incredibly angry and about to go nuts with a big stick' face while grappling with several cops.
Slightly more relevant to the plot is the brutal murder of Mr S's lovely wife, for which he is framed and sent to a maximum security prison, run by icy warden Joan Allen. Allen supervises the Death Race events, and she has a proposition for our man: top driver Frankenstein died after the last race, secretly, and she needs someone to carry on the persona and keep the ratings up. If Mr Statham agrees to pretend to be Frankenstein, he will be let out of prison and given custody of his baby daughter should he survive the race. (It transpires that, as well as being a devoted family man and good-guy steelworker, Mr Statham has also got stints as a prison hard man and top racing driver on his CV. Now that's what I call an eclectic employment history.)
Naturally he agrees, and we are introduced to various other characters, including Frankenstein's chief mechanic (Ian McShane), his hot navigator (Natalie Martinez) - yes, inmates from the womens' prison up the road are the navigators, and like female convicts everywhere they all look like supermodels - and his deadly rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). But Mr S is a smart cookie and realises just how lucky the warden is that a man of his special talents should arrive in the prison just at the moment. Could Allen know more about the conspiracy to murder Mr S's wife than she's letting on...?
I originally came across the existence of Death Race during the trailers preceding Wanted, when my immediate reaction was that it looked like one of the greatest films ever made (I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the knowledge I would not be getting to see it at the cinema). Now, of course, I realise that it is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is not even the best film called Death Race ever made. It is trashy junk, or perhaps junky trash.
It does look good as a trailer, though. All of Paul WS Anderson's films look pretty good in the trailer, it's just when it comes to fleshing the trailer out to 90 minutes or more that things tend to get a bit problematical. So it is with Death Race: all of Anderson's thought seems to have gone into the various action sequences and tableaux of automotive mayhem, and everything else is just dealt with on the most hackneyed, perfunctory level. There's a trope referred to as 'fridging', which basically refers to introducing a female character solely to kill her off and provide the male protagonist with some motivation to avenge her death (so named due to the moment in an issue of Green Lantern when the hero came home to find his girlfriend’s corpse in the refrigerator), and the way in which Statham’s character is introduced in this film is fridging of the most blatant kind – it’s nothing more than connect the dots plotting, with his wife nothing more than some kind of adjunct.
Not that the rest of the film exactly distinguishes itself when it comes to its gender politics. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness when someone admits that the only reason the female navigators are included is to keep the audience interested, but the rest of the time… well, every time most of the women characters make an entrance the soundtrack starts playing a song with the lyric (I paraphrase) ‘Look at me, I’m so incredibly sexy’.
There are times when Death Race kind of resembles a messed-up version of one of the Fast and Furious films – it was made at the point at which that franchise seemed to have terminally lost its way, between F&F 3 and 4 – but watching it really does remind you of what makes that franchise a little bit distinctive. Those films may be occasionally dumb and superficial, but they’re not utterly hopeless when it comes to gender politics, nor are they casually murderous. (There’s a – hmm – running joke about the sexual orientation of Gibson’s character that probably wouldn’t be given house-room in a F&F movie, either.)
In fact, the big mystery about this film is just how it managed to snag a serious actress like Joan Allen to appear in it (stranger things have happened, I suppose: Imelda Staunton once did a Steven Seagal film). A fairly pre-fame Jason Clarke appears as a sadistic prison guard, too. Allen was fairly fresh from the Bourne movies at the time, which may have something to do with it, and it is entirely possibly she was expecting something a little less knuckle-dragging, given the Death Race name.
The 1975 version of Death Race is… well, it’s not high art, by any means, but it has a kind of crazy energy and unhinged intelligence about it. It is ridiculous and absurd, but that’s kind of the point and it allows the film to engage in all kinds of OTT satire about American culture and society. The new Death Race is equally ridiculous and absurd, but it’s only interested in hollow carnage and prison movie cliches. Not a highlight of Jason Statham’s career, by any means – he has done many better films since, and I’m sure Mechanic: Resurrection has much more to offer the discerning viewer. But unfortunately I can’t be sure.