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Armored ‘Stangs, Pedal to the Metal

August 22, 2008

YOU GET EXACTLY what you pay for with “Death Race” – slam-bang, screeching armored cars crashing into each other as rat-a -tat machine guns drown out the droning music and drivers growl things like “Sayonara.”

“You wanted a monster. Well, you’ve got one!” Frankenstein yells as he plows forth.

This melee makes the commute from Norfolk to Virginia Beach on I- 264 seem like a quiet time.

The movie knows its audience and goes directly for it.

It’s a remake of Roger Corman’s underground favorite “Death Race 2000,” in which David Carradine played a masked driver known as Frankenstein. If you want to be optimistic about the evolution of the human race, you might say the motivations are better here (in other words, just a notch above the psychopathic blood sport). In the earlier movie, the drivers ran down innocent bystanders in a quest for fame. The bystanders even thought it was great to be run down by a famous driver.

Now, at least, the drivers are racing for the higher goal of getting out of prison – the hell hole known as Terminal Island where Joan Allen rules as the high-heeled warden.

Can you blame the guys for wanting to escape?

Allen is the movie’s strangest apparition. Here is a Tony- winning actress and a double Oscar nominee stooping to a B-budget outing that could have served as a vehicle for Paris Hilton – if only she were older.

We first see Allen, the classical actress, striding in her stiletto s through the exercise yard of the prison. The psychotic killers get out of the way, bowing and calling her “ma’am” as she passes.

The warden makes outside cash by running the Death Race for millions of thrill-hungry TV viewers who subscribe to see three days of auto melee. Allen spouts lines like “Activate dead heads” and “Release the dreadnought.” There’s no doubt she would give up the movie’s hero, Jason Statham, for a ratings point.

Even so, Allen could have screamed and threatened a bit more. We’d bet that Hope Emerson in “Caged” (1950) could wipe her out. ( Emerson is our favorite women’s prison guard in movie history. Rent “Caged,” starring Eleanor Parker.)

Statham is a bona fide movie star in his own genre – having replaced the likes of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal as the action guy in B-budgeted noisemakers. He’s no pretty boy, but as a former British Olympics diver and martial-arts expert, he’s clearly put in time at the gym. Bullet-headed and six-packed, he rarely smiles.

And no wonder. He’s left holding the knife when his pretty wife is murdered, just so the warden can get him into prison to drive in her race. She needs a new star because her old star, Frankenstein, has been through so many disfiguring crashes that he finally expired on the operating table. Now she wants Statham to put on the mask and drive in place of Frankenstein.

Are you laughing yet? This stuff is hilarious if you’re in a sadistic mood . The audience for the local preview didn’t crack a smile, much less a laugh. They took it all seriously. So be it.

Mustangs, Ram trucks, Chrysler 300s and Porsches get the armored look, complete with a concrete “thing” that can be dropped when someone yells, “Drop the tombstone!”

To add cleavage, Natalie Martinez shows up in a T-shirt that is at least two sizes too small. She’s Statham’s “navigator,” which means she screams things like “Watch out!” and “I think we’ve got trouble!”

The charismatic Tyrese Gibson plays rival numero uno, a homicidal homosexual named Machine Gun Joe.

The director, Paul W.S. Anderson, is definitely no kin to the Oscar-nominated Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”). This Anderson’s experience was in video games. It shows. After all, the original “Death Race 2000″ became an arcade game, and it still gets action. This Anderson depends somewhat heavily on manic quick cuts to keep the audience from seeing the details of effects that might not be so special.

Enough. Pedal to the metal, and pass the popcorn.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, mal.vincent@pilotonline.com

MOVIE REVIEW

“DEATH RACE”

Cast Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane, Frederick Koehler, Max Ryan

Director and writer Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the screenplay “Death Race 2000″ by Robert Thom and Charles Griffith

MPAA rating: R (violence and profanity)

Mal’s rating:

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(c) 2008 Virginian – Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.