Be ready for recoil. As writer, producer, and director of Death Race, Paul W. S. Anderson orchestrates an inventive, stomach-churning orgy of eviscerated bodies, dispatched from the screen via piercing metal, burning napalm, grinding collisions, exploding gas tanks, and military-grade artillery fired in very confined spaces. This is popular filmmaking at its most visceral and sadistic, even if framed by a satirical extrapolation of present-day voyeurism and realized with perverse beauty and explosive energy.
Based loosely on Roger Corman’s biting Death Race 2000 (1975), the movie pits a disgraced, rough-trade racing driver, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), against amoral prison boss Hennessey (a silky Joan Allen), who has invented the ultimate pay-per-view thrill: snuff TV. Each week, the baddest-ass prisoners at her Terminal Island penitentiary climb into armored and armed Detroit icons and race to remain the last man alive. Raking in $99 dollars per viewer per race, with a spike of millions when anyone dies, Hennessey craves ever more cash and power. When ratings dip, she frames Ames for murder and promises him freedom if he can crank up the competition and win just one final race.
Anderson dilutes Corman’s satire by locating the movie among society’s transgressors, depicting their dysfunctions with gory relish, and confining the race safely behind the walls of an isolated prison. Competitors are society’s outcasts, already condemned to die. The original movie implicated law-abiding citizens, and thus the audience, fully in the action and televised spectacle of the death race. Drivers hurtled through the major cities of the United States in a transcontinental road race, racking up bonus points for the number, age and gender of civilians they killed along the way. Corman forced his viewers to confront their own anomie at the same time that he exploited it. Anderson instead creates an identifiable “good guy” in the innocent Ames, with whom the audience can sympathize without conflict.
On the other hand, Anderson’s set-up scenes add contemporary punch to the movie. In an opening reminiscent of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar in its focus on the intricacies of skilled manual labor, Ames emerges from a dying steel plant on its last day of operation to a minimal pay packet. A distrustful management unleashes SWAT teams on its newly redundant workers, criminalizing working people left behind by the service and knowledge economies, invoking a parallel between blue-collar workers and the incarcerated as individuals rejected and forgotten.
But such parallels vanish the minute Ames enters the prison and learns that each death race features three stages, two preliminary races where the object is to kill as many rivals as possible, followed by a final head-to-head between the surviving rivals. The audience knows exactly what’s coming next. And it isn’t subtle social critique.
Neither is it sophisticated acting: the men pump iron pre-production, deliver laconic dialogue on set, and look menacing. (The exception is Ian McShane, as the manager of Ames’ pit team, who provides moments of humanity and wit.) The real stars of the show are the production team. The camera lens seems smeared with a perpetual film of post-industrial grime, through which every explosion or flash of light throbs with an apocalyptic glow. Shooting from multiple angles, many of them low and distorting (as many as eight cameras filming some sequences simultaneously) is coupled with jagged, accelerated editing to pump dizzying abstract patterns across the screen.
The creation of so much beauty in the service of such relentless violence is in itself disturbing. Such sustained aestheticizing of violence recalls not so much cinematic models (although Sam Peckinpah’s elegant arabesques of flying blood and shattered flesh do come to mind) as the visual environments of the video games from which Anderson has already made several movies. For much of their short history, video games have pursued the verisimilitude of movies; here the aim seems reversed, as the movie grasps for games’ vampiric grip on the senses.
As America has been fighting a war for the last five years, it’s hard to contemplate such luxuriance in violence dispassionately, especially when the movie alludes to Iraq. The reinforcing of the racecars with industrial scrap and chunks of wrecked vehicles recalls U.S. soldiers’ struggles to armor their vulnerable Humvees for combat. And the races for survival in the confines of the prison complex imitate the claustrophobic, unpredictable conditions of 21st-century urban warfare. Just as the incarcerated population of the U.S. (now the largest per capita in the world) and former industrial workers and communities emerge only sporadically into public consciousness, so too is the all-volunteer military, now largely drawn from a relatively narrow range of social and economic groups, in permanent exile from the rest of the U. S.
Anderson has extraordinary talent, the logistical flair without which great moviemaking is impossible, and an enviable ability to elicit impeccable work from his production and technical crews. But, on the evidence of Death Race, one more remake of someone else’s tale, he has yet to find his soul.