A Statham Special

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Death Race
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 specialóthat heís the eraís most dependable action-movie starócan be understood from the fact that this remake of the 1978 American International Pictures cult film, Death Race 2000, is the superior movie. Stathamís not just the latest big-screen badass; heís come to stand for quality product. None of todayís 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 donít have the cachet of big-budget dreck like The Bourne Identity-Supremacy-Ultimatum, but they get the job done. Stathamís 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 filmsóand especially in Stathamís understated heroism.

The shady, underworld type Statham portrays was elevated from goon to champion in Luc Bessonís 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 coolóas opposed to the Bourne moviesí 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 doesnít 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). Stathamís 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 Craigís rough-trade James Bond, Statham creates an action hero of the people. (His threat in Crank, ďI need to kick some black ass,Ē was a classic egalitarian retort.) Thatís why mainstream media hasnít caught on to him. †††

Last springís The Bank Job attempted to domesticate Statham, but its art-movie pretensions were too formulaic. Stathamís code doesnít need conventional, banal explicationóhis 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 Bessonís recent reinvention of the action movie. (Bessonís influence is what made Revolver the only good Guy Ritchie film).

It is Stathamís 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 sportórunning down pedestriansóexposed 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. (Weíre 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, ďI was always headed here. I knew it.Ē John Garfieldís post-Depression existentialism wasnít any more poignant. Statham confirmed his acting chops in the terrific erotic drama London (shamefully overlooked by critics); but the fact is, Jensenís subtle, minimal character suits the absolute expertise of Andersonís superb action directing.†

The 2002 film Resident Evil showcased Andersonís fearsome composition and editing gifts. He turned that video-game adaptation into phenomenally visceral cinema. (Heís the good Paul Anderson.) So far this decade, only Spielbergís 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-movieís 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 Andersonís race and demolition scenes convey the crushing insensitivity of a dehumanized social and economic structure. The exuberance of Andersonís filmmaking prompts inherent satireórecalling Paul Verhoevenís Starship Troopers. And the high-pressure chases, despite a monochrome visual scheme, recall Joseph Kahnís 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 outrť competitors who each make funny, eye-widening exits (Tyrese Gibsonís Machine Gun Joe offers an interesting gay subplot). Thereís 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 Jensenís Frankenstein mask, the prisonís iconic man-made monster. Statham and Allenís sexual hostility intensifies the standard convict-warden rivalry. But their antagonism is not sexist, itís archetypal. She taunts his masculinity in a cruelly disorienting way; Stathamís stunned response isnít bravado, itís trenchantówhat an actor!

When Hennessey ramps up the race (ďRelease the Dreadnought!Ē) Anderson inserts a hugely brutalóyet exhilaratingóspectacle. Hennessey wields her own nightmarish phallic symbol with that motorized behemoth Dreadnought. It bests the teeter-totter heaviness of Chris Nolanís 18-wheeler truck flip in The Dark Knight. Itís also smarter than the terrorist sympathizing in Don Cheadleís action film, Traitor. Letís 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 youíll need a keen movie sense to recognize their underappreciated talents.

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