21 December 2008

DEATH RACE (Dir. Paul W S Anderson, 2008, US) - ‘Never a dull day...'

The British born film maker, Paul W S Anderson, (not to be confused with the high brow intellectualism of another Paul Anderson) has made a virtual career out of making ‘B’ movie genre films which are have the acquired the status of instantly disposable trashy cinema. ‘Death Race’ is representative of the 70s Grindhouse cinema that regularly exploited sex and violence to cater for a midnight niche audience who stalked the defunct inner city cinema venues like New York. Tarantino and Rodriquez love of exploitation movies was more than evident in their Grindhouse tribute; a double bill of films which seemed to disintegrate in the face of annoying self referencing and irritating homage. Now had QT and RR taken a step back from the directors chair and hired a unashamed master of exploitation like Paul W S Anderson then they may have had more luck in trying to capture the trashy, poverty row philosophies that made a director like John Carpenter into the cult figure he is today.

Interestingly enough when I think of exploitation films today, Roger Corman and John Carpenter are the two names that immediately come to the foreground, illustrating how both were essentially able to take the most outlandish of concepts and make them work for a mainstream audience. The key to Carpenter’s success was how unashamed he was about his approach to the most exploitative and trashiest of film genres; the horror film. Carpenter’s body of work still stands up to further scrutiny and analysis, but the same cannot be said for Paul W S Anderson. Yet ‘Death Race’ is one of the few Hollywood films in recent years that has managed to feel like an early 70s Carpenter film and also evoke the provocative spirit of exploitation cinema. There is nothing tasteful about ‘Death Race’, a film that is a remake of a Corman 70s classic, as it takes the idea of criminals racing cars in order to survive to see another day.

Anderson takes a sly dig at the barren state of the media by shooting the death race sequences as the ultimate reality TV show, referencing the super charged melodramatics of sports events and also paying tribute to the influence of video game imagery that is becoming more endemic to the visual style of film making today. His criticism does not stop quite there as Hennessey (Joan Allen), the prison warden, is represented as a shadowy reflection of the competitive television producer whose only concern is with maintaining consistently high ratings and ensuring the death race event is a commercially viable source of entertainment. Exploitation films tend to blur the boundaries between genres and such is the case with ‘Death Race’ as it uses the prison movie conventions as a means of creating some kind of crude sympathy for characters who are morally despicable monsters and sociopaths.

Jason Statham takes the main lead as Jensen Ames/Frankenstein and the superficially reductive stereotype of the British hard man gone off the rails is pretty similar to the ones he has played before in films like ‘Crank’ and ‘The Transporter’. Statham seems to have modelled himself on action heroes like Stallone, Van Damme and Michael Caine, yet even though his acting range severely limits his skills as an actor he still manages to make his characters very likable. Statham seems to have understood quite early in his career that minimal dialogue can actually be the saving grace of an actor who seems to be much more effective when passing glances, making grunts or staring manically at the camera. Such a strategy worked brilliantly for Schwarzenegger for years until some idiot though it would be a good idea for him to team up with the Danny De Vito and make the atrocious and unforgivable comedy, ‘Twins’. Another Brit, Ian McShane also makes an appearance as Coach, the trusty surrogate father figure, who spends most of his time at the sidelines egging on Jensen/Frank whilst pausing to deliver some of the dumbest one liners seen in a film since Bruckheimer gave up making the adult action film.

You know you are firmly in the land of exploitation cinema when a film reduces the only main black character down to the archetype of the violent, blood thirsty, gun tooting ‘sadist’ who spends much of his time cataloguing the men he has killed by scratching his cheekbones with a razor blade. Predictable, violent, trashy, and unashamedly exploitative, ‘Death Race’ should be considered brilliantly effective when positioned alongside the other disposable and escapist films Anderson has directed to date. Not quite the best of John Carpenter, but still much better than the uninspired exploitation cinema of both Tarantino and Rodriquez of late.


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