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Death Race is just too deathly serious

Posted at 12:15 PM on August 22, 2008 by Euan Kerr

Malcolm the 17 year old and I wandered out of the theater after seeing "Death Race" the other night (it was one of those father/son 'splosion movie bonding things) and tried to work out what it was that was missing in the film and left us wanting.

"Death Race" is set in a maximum security prison of the dystopian future where skilled prisoners race to the death in souped-up armored vehicles which carry more large calibre guns than a small warship. If a prisoner wins five races he goes free. It's nasty, bloody and violent and it's watched by millions on pay-per-view.

The film has a lot going for it. There's Jason Stratham plays Jenson Ames, a former top race driver on the outside, who is framed for the murder of his wife and forced to drive one of the cars. There's Joan Allen, who plays Hennessey, the imperious warden who created the death race, who stalks the prison yard in high heels and pinstripes, and rules with a rod of iron. And there's Ian McShane who plays Coach, the mechanical genius who builds and rebuilds Ames car after every punishing run.

There are some great cars and some amazing races though the crumbling racetrack littered with debris and the occasional hydraulic spike.

But why didn't it gel?

Malcolm said, "There's no character development," which I felt was a little harsh. Stratham is pretty settled in the action niche and he does what he does very well. Allen also maintains a steely fury just below her carefully controlled mask which is a joy to watch when she finally explodes.

No, what is missing is menace. "Death Race" is based on Paul Bartel's 1975 movie, "Death Race 2000" which was produced by the king of the B-movies Roger Corman. Corman is executive producer on this film too, but somewhere along the line someone dropped an important ingredient.

In "Death Race 2000" the race took place on public highways, and the drivers got points for every person they hit on the way. It was a preposterous idea of course and played for bloody laughs.

Yet it introduced a feeling of unease in the audience which was hard to shake, particularly as you made your way home in the dark after the film. The new Death Race seems too contained in comparison, and takes itself a little too seriously.

It is worth pointing out that both Malcolm and I realized we were extremely uneasy as we left the parking lot, just checking that our fellow theater-goers hadn't picked up any strange ideas when they got behind the wheel.

August 2008
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