With a CV that boasts 'Mortal Kombat', 'Resident Evil' and more recently 'Alien Vs Predator', it's no surprise that Paul WS Anderson's latest directorial effort 'Death Race' looks and feels like a computer game. What is surprising is how dull, repetitive and unappealing the film turns out to be.
The year is 2012, and America's economy has collapsed (Economies? Collapsing? Never!). Unemployment is at record levels and prisons have been handed over to private corporations to run for profit.
What starts off as a seemingly sound premise for a film unfortunately degenerates into one long extended car race, with little or no reference to the outside world.
Jensen Ames (Statham) is your all-round, good natured, blue collar worker. On the day the steel mill he works at closes, Ames is framed for his wife's brutal murder. Fast-forward six months and Ames is now an inmate at the Terminal Island Prison facility.
With prisons now operated for profit, brutal races of the prisoners are organised and transmitted live across the Internet for $99 a go. Prisoners compete in armoured cars with a variety of firepower, while attempting to kill each other. The first one to cross the line wins. Win five races and you win your freedom.
Ames is persuaded by prison warden Hennessy (Allen) to fill the shoes of Death Race's most legendary driver, Frankenstein, the winner of four races and unbeknown to the general public, now dead.
So Ames reluctantly accepts the proposition and goes about winning his freedom. He is set up with Frankenstein's old pit crew, among them Coach (McShane) and his navigator, Case (Martinez).
The Death Race is broken into three stages: in stages one and two the driver must merely survive; with stage three the driver must win the race in order for it to count towards a bid for freedom.
That's it in a nutshell. What is hard to convey, however, is the lack of plot, characterisation and anything remotely resembling decent dialogue that takes over the next hour-and-a-half.
Dystopian films, those in which we are presented with a nightmare scenario of the future, can often be some of the most entertaining, thought-provoking movies you'll see - think 'Mad Max', 'Twelve Monkeys' or even 'Children of Men'. With 'Death Race', however, the audience is not invited to think about the events happening in this new world, apart from a car race.
The notion of blending an extreme version of reality-television and Internet broadcasting is an interesting one but, unfortunately, like the rest of the film, it is not explored further. The audience gets a brief summary of the combatants at the start of each race. These opening credits are done well, but are all too short. Drivers are merely introduced; given a brief resume of who they've killed and what kind of driver they are. Within a few minutes they're usually dead.
Let me say that all this would be watchable, were it not for the fact that the races themselves are shockingly dull. Grey cars drive around grey tracks under a grey sky. This, coupled with camera shots that last for no longer than five seconds a time, all the while swooping and diving, make the races so repetitive and devoid of tension that by the end you'll be screaming out for an episode of 'Wacky Races'.
Presumably, Anderson thought that an hour-and-a-half-long car race wouldn't exactly be feasible. So to make up time in between the race stages the audience is treated to cloned scenes from other prison movies. These hamfisted attempts at 'The Shawshank Redemption' are some of the worst in the film. Coach, for example, is clearly Morgan Freeman's Red, albeit one with no depth or original lines.
The inclusion of Joan Allen (her of 'Bourne Supremacy'/'...Ultimatum' fame) as sadistic warden Hennessy you would think might save the film - and her performance is credible - but the fact that she never has to do more than look like an ice-queen and shout the odd expletive makes you wonder why they bothered casting her at all, or in fact why she signed up to do it.
When watching 'Death Race' you feel like you are watching one long, extended video game. However, Anderson could have given gamers more credit, and the audience a better film.