Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Jason Statham, who has the best track record of any contemporary movie actor, continues his winning streak with Death Race. What makes Statham special—that he’s the era’s most dependable action-movie star—can be understood from the fact that this remake of the 1978 American International Pictures cult film, Death Race 2000, is the superior movie. Statham’s not just the latest big-screen badass; he’s come to stand for quality product. None of today’s media favorites (Clooney, Pitt, Depp, Damon) can list so many films as good as Transporter, Cellular, Transporter 2, London, Revolver, Crank, War and Death Race.
Decades ago those would have been called B-movies. They don’t have the cachet of big-budget dreck like The Bourne Identity-Supremacy-Ultimatum, but they get the job done. Statham’s films are shorter, swifter, more imaginative and meaningful. B-movie virtues (distilling complex dilemmas to clearly depicted personal moral conflicts) thrive in the terseness and flair of these films—and especially in Statham’s understated heroism.
The shady, underworld type Statham portrays was elevated from goon to champion in Luc Besson’s 2002 production, Transporter. More than a state-of-the-art action flick, it was a strikingly lean, precise, stylish amalgam of Hong Kong flair, Hollywood vividness and European cool—as opposed to the Bourne movies’ jittery sledgehammer. It offered the satisfaction of a seeing a compromised man doing good (unlike the exasperating Bourne), while Statham paid homage to Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal and Charles Bronson.
Statham acts in codes; his close-shaved head doesn’t connote skinhead culture, but the more democratic definition of machismo that came from hip-hop prison couture, a non-segregated working-class identity (substantiated by journeyman-villain roles in Cellular and Collateral). Statham’s street-tough composure translates globally: He has British reserve yet is athletic enough for Hong Kong, no-nonsense enough for Americans and moral enough for the French. Different from Daniel Craig’s rough-trade James Bond, Statham creates an action hero of the people. (His threat in Crank, “I need to kick some black ass,” was a classic egalitarian retort.) That’s why mainstream media hasn’t caught on to him.
Last spring’s The Bank Job attempted to domesticate Statham, but its art-movie pretensions were too formulaic. Statham’s code doesn’t need conventional, banal explication—his temperament is expressed through recognizable action. The climactic fistfights of The Bank Job were its best scenes, but other Statham films (the radically inventive Crank and War) sustained that pressure, power and personality throughout. His streamlined phallic drive personifies the re-energized style and pared-down technique that distinguishes Luc Besson’s recent reinvention of the action movie. (Besson’s influence is what made Revolver the only good Guy Ritchie film).
It is Statham’s action bona fides that gives him the passport to play a U.S. working man, doomed to wage the proletarian fight in Death Race. In the original Death Race 2000, the men who raced cars were cartoonish, competing against a traditional taciturn man of courage (played by David Carradine); their sport—running down pedestrians—exposed national bloodlust. But Statham plays Jensen Ames, a victim of a future economic collapse. Unemployed yet railroaded into prison, Jensen takes on the role of Frankenstein, the anonymous victor of the digitally broadcast death races that provide bloody smash-up entertainment for the depraved public. The race takes place in three stages over three days. Fifty-million viewers subscribe to the live-streaming broadcasts of prisoner-drivers-gladiators attempting to obliterate each other on the supervised obstacle course. (We’re made part of that throng.)
Jensen fights to avenge his wrongful arrest but Statham also gives him mournful feeling. He explains to Coach (Ian McShane), the prison mechanic who revamps his modified Mustang, “I was always headed here. I knew it.” John Garfield’s post-Depression existentialism wasn’t any more poignant. Statham confirmed his acting chops in the terrific erotic drama London (shamefully overlooked by critics); but the fact is, Jensen’s subtle, minimal character suits the absolute expertise of Anderson’s superb action directing.
The 2002 film Resident Evil showcased Anderson’s fearsome composition and editing gifts. He turned that video-game adaptation into phenomenally visceral cinema. (He’s the good Paul Anderson.) So far this decade, only Spielberg’s War of the Worlds has evidenced such scarily adept technique. Remaking Death Race like a video game (Anderson also wrote the script) cleverly updates and abstracts the original B-movie’s social metaphor. Prisons are exposed as part of our national commerce, using auto carnage and human exploitation to perpetuate the system. The speed and power of Anderson’s race and demolition scenes convey the crushing insensitivity of a dehumanized social and economic structure. The exuberance of Anderson’s filmmaking prompts inherent satire—recalling Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. And the high-pressure chases, despite a monochrome visual scheme, recall Joseph Kahn’s dazzling Torque.
Anderson and Statham have remixed, remodeled, refined, refurbished and restored the rules of B-movies without losing the intelligence and wit that made them special. This includes the gallery of sacrificial outré competitors who each make funny, eye-widening exits (Tyrese Gibson’s Machine Gun Joe offers an interesting gay subplot). There’s also the battle of nerves between Jensen and the prison warden who controls the race. As Warden Hennessey, Joan Allen exudes upper-class malice, contorting her face to ingeniously resemble the flat, frightening planes of Jensen’s Frankenstein mask, the prison’s iconic man-made monster. Statham and Allen’s sexual hostility intensifies the standard convict-warden rivalry. But their antagonism is not sexist, it’s archetypal. She taunts his masculinity in a cruelly disorienting way; Statham’s stunned response isn’t bravado, it’s trenchant—what an actor!
When Hennessey ramps up the race (“Release the Dreadnought!”) Anderson inserts a hugely brutal—yet exhilarating—spectacle. Hennessey wields her own nightmarish phallic symbol with that motorized behemoth Dreadnought. It bests the teeter-totter heaviness of Chris Nolan’s 18-wheeler truck flip in The Dark Knight. It’s also smarter than the terrorist sympathizing in Don Cheadle’s action film, Traitor. Let’s be honest: A-movies and A-movie actors arrogantly foul-up movie excitation. Through B-movie audacity, Statham and Anderson heighten Death Race into a skull-crusher and a mind-bender. But you’ll need a keen movie sense to recognize their underappreciated talents.