Death Race: Worth a Test Drive

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Takashi Seida / Universal Pictures

Jason Statham as Jensen Ames in Death Race.

Is it just me — I mean, me and my infallible film sense — or are action movies getting better while nearly every other genre has gone fallow and flaccid? I'm no special fan of cine-mayhem, but I'm buoyed by the craft and verve of recent entertainments like Iron Man, Speed Racer, Wanted, Hellboy and The Dark Knight. Even so-so entries like The Incredible Hulk and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Billionaire Sexagenarians Trying to Recapture the Glories of Their Middle Years interrupt their meandering with set pieces that are figuratively or literally dynamite — like an old Astaire-Rogers movie that comes to soaring life when the couple starts dancing.

This summer has proved that the action film is where most of the talent has gone: into the technique and technology of pure moviemaking, of getting the viewer's blood racing by blowing stuff up. Handmade art is on the wane; machine art is here to stay. The gentle crafts of acting, of sculpting witty dialogue, of a director's subtle sense of where to lead the camera and the audience may be in decline, but the second-unit guys and stuntmen and CGI wizards are at the top of their game. It's not the highest form of the seventh art, but it is one of the original definitions of the medium to make cinema kinetic, to make movies move.

Move is what Death Race does; it's an eight-cylinder vehicle from which some prankster removed the brakes. It's got the red meat of fanboy film ardor: cars with guns — the movie's tag line is "Gentlemen, start your weapons" — and cons with girls. Though the picture doesn't deserve to appear on any critic's 10-best list, it observes the minimum standards of modern action films, which is to say it looks smarter, talks sassier and moves faster than almost anything else on the market.

Based on the 1975 Death Race 2000, which we'll get to later, the new picture was scripted and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who did the Resident Evil series and a few other artifacts of high-hackdom. (This Anderson, a Brit, is not ever to be confused with the U.S.-bred, high-art fave Paul Thomas Anderson, of There Will Be Blood renown). But the movie is less a one-man show than a highly complex, finely tuned product, manufactured by an army of geek specialists and cyber-grease monkeys. What Death Race loses in soul — which would be extraneous baggage in an effort like this — it gains in group ingenuity.

Motorpsycho Nightmare
It's 2012, we're told at the start. The U.S. economy has collapsed. Prisons have been privatized. The government rules with an iron fist, and the populace is sedated with violent entertainment. (Wait, this isn't futurism; it's a Daily Kos blog.) On a nouveau Alcatraz called Terminal Island, Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen, merging her purse-lipped Pat Nixon impersonation with the imperious tenseness of Dick Nixon in late-Watergate mode) is in charge of an annual televised car-nage held on a giant track within the prison. In this Death Race, lifers drive the souped-up, heavily armed autos, and are promised an early release if they win five races. One of the inmates, a masked mystery man known as Frankenstein, is a four-time champion, hence the pay-per-view audience's favorite roadster. Hennessey's secret problem: Frank died from injuries suffered in the last race. She needs a new guy to put on the mask and slip behind the wheel of the Frankencar.

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