Movies like Death Race exist so critics will have something to put on their year-end "Worst Of" lists.
Technically, it's a remake of Paul Bartel's schlocky Death Race 2000 from 1975. But director Paul W.S. Anderson also uses his gig as an excuse to revisit every innocent-man-behind-bars cliché that has been introduced from then 'til now.
Set in the apocalyptic future of 2012, Death Race imagines a flawed and brutal penal system where private corporations run prisons for profit and inmates at the Terminal Island Penitentiary are forced to compete in a televised, NASCAR-esque sprint to the death. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, on auto-pilot) is a decent man who's framed for murdering his wife because Hennessey (Joan Allen, slumming it), Terminal Island's cold-blooded warden, needs a replacement driver on the eve of a major race.
I wouldn't hire Anderson to helm a beer commercial, but then again, I don't work for Universal. The studio had to know what they were getting, however, once they handed Anderson the keys to this vehicle. The Brit filmmaker is the thinking man's Uwe Boll, his illustrious credits including video game adaptations of Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. This helps explain why Death Race resembles an Xbox game that we want to control (or, at least, turn off) but can't.
Stock characterization and predictable developments are expected. But couldn't Anderson at least nail his race footage? Erratic editing and horrific zooms butcher already repetitive racing sequences. Washed-out production values and a bleak color scheme often make it hard to distinguish which menacing road warrior is leading the race. The gratuitous violence is sadistic in nature, pausing only when Anderson's misogynistic camera lingers -- in slow motion, of course -- on Natalie Martinez and her curvaceous female co-stars.
So why, pray tell, is Allen agreeing to be in garbage like this? It could be something as simple as the paycheck. Allen isn't the first Oscar nominee to tolerate genre trash for the good of a beachfront-condo mortgage, and she won't be the last.
Or maybe Allen had such fun biting heads off in the Bourne franchise that she relished the notion of once again playing a villain who is, to quote one of Anderson's scripted gems, "judge, jury, and executioner." But Allen needs to be careful. Put too many of these stinkers on the resume and it's her career that could be sentenced to death.