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‘Death Race’ crawls to the finish line

It's bad enough that this remake of “Death Race 2000” strips the political satire from the original — it doesn’t even get the car-chase stuff right.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

One gets the suspicion that the script for “Death Race,” a new remake of the brilliant 1975 violent political satire “Death Race 2000,” wasn’t so much written as it was cobbled together from ideas pulled out of the Cliché Hat. Follow along as we dissect the plot from its very familiar pieces:

A retired race car driver (Jason Statham) has to run one more race when he’s thrown into a high-security prison in a dystopic future where evil corporations run everything. The company that runs Terminal Island has a very lucrative Internet show, “Death Race,” which features prisoners racing in no-holds-barred competitions where they’re allowed to shoot at each other.

The driver, of course, was framed for the murder of his wife. And now he’s got to win the race so he can win his freedom, vanquish his wife’s real killers and be reunited with his infant daughter.

Roger Corman’s original “Death Race” played off the idea of society’s love of bread-and-circus bloodbaths, but for all its wit, it never neglected to throw in lots of great road-race sequences, hand-to-hand combat and general mayhem.

And if the new “Death Race” delivered that stuff, the awful script — which includes gems like “It’s honest work for honest men” and “She’s judge, jury and executioner!” — could be forgiven. But director Paul W.S. Anderson gives us gray cars racing around gray buildings underneath a gray sky. When I found myself longing for the eye-scorching hues of “Speed Racer,” I knew we were in trouble.

Also making the titular competition a big snooze is the fact that we don’t really care about any of Statham’s opponents. The closest thing we get to characterization is the fact that Tyrese’s Machine Gun Joe is gay, but “Death Race” has nothing smart or funny to say about it. Given Tyrese’s homophobic comments to the press in past years, there might be some joy in watching him play a gay character had the script done anything at all with that detail.

Anderson (who also scripted) once knew his way around cars on film, having begun his career with the taut and snappy “Shopping,” about London kids who steal automobiles, drive them through storefront windows and then loot what’s inside. But in the years since that promising debut, he’s frittered his talents on awful video game adaptations (“Mortal Kombat,” “Resident Evil”) and sub-par science fiction (“Event Horizon,” “AVP: Alien vs. Predator”). A more capable filmmaker could have more fun with the mayhem-for-profit-online element, to say nothing of the slam-bang automotive action, but Anderson fails on both accounts.

He also doesn’t seem to know what to do with Statham; it’s as though Anderson thought his star worked better as the strong, silent type, so Statham winds up with minimal dialogue, forcing his second bananas (notably Ian McShane and Frederick Koehler) to spout lots of exposition about who Statham is and why he’s such a great auto racer.

The saddest sight that “Death Race” offers is the great Joan Allen, acting her heart out in a two-dimensional role as the prison warden. (She is, of course, a ball-breaker; the other women in the film are either sexy sidekicks or murder victims.) She owns the screen during her handful of scenes, but one wishes she could be projected elsewhere in the multiplex, preferably in a well-written movie that gave her something interesting to do.