‘Death Race’: testosterone soaked hip-hop lashed, grindhouse flick

Posted Aug. 25, 2008, at 1:03 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

DEATH RACE written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, 105 minutes, rated R.

The new Paul W.S. Anderson movie, “Death Race,” stars three-time Academy Award-nominated actress Joan Allen as the evil prison warden Hennessey, whose name evokes the hip-hop community’s alcoholic beverage of choice for good reason.

After seeing this beauty, which is laced with an aggressive hip-hop soundtrack, you might need a shot of Hennessy yourself just to settle your nerves.

Inspired by 1975’s “Death Race 2000,” Anderson’s version is set in the year 2012, and it opens with a rush of ugliness. The economy is in the can, what’s left of our culture isn’t far behind, and people increasingly are being laid off, including Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), who returns home to his wife and infant daughter with the bad news that he’s out of work. Since the movie is cocooned in a haze of male fantasy, his wife’s response isn’t to appear concerned, but to have sex, which is interrupted by their crying baby.

And then it gets worse.

After showering, Ames finds that his wife has been murdered in their kitchen, where she should have been cooking. When a masked man knocks him out cold and puts the murder weapon in his hand, it’s off to the pokey for Ames, where more trouble brews in the form of Warden Hennessey, who suggests that Ames, a former race car driver, consider taking part in the prison’s car racing game, Death Race.

Broadcast to millions worldwide via the Internet, the game is as cold and as vicious as Hennessey’s narrow gaze. Her offer comes down to this: If Ames participates by posing as some dude named Frankenstein, who was driven out of commission during the last race, he will earn his freedom should he win this race. Seeing no way out, Ames agrees.

Among those helping him are curvaceous Case (Natalie Martinez) and Ames’ crew chief, Coach (Ian McShane), who could be a free man if he didn’t suffer from a disorder that prevents him from leaving prison. Turns out that’s the film’s biggest laugh.

Working against them are Ames’ main rival, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), as well as a bevy of other types, such as 14K (Robin Shou), Pachenko (Max Ryan), and the grim, uh, Grimm (Robert LaSardo). The film is divided into three separate racing segments with each man taking to his heavily armored and weaponed cars to blast the hell out of each other as they race toward their gruesome deaths. Or their freedom.

Since nobody is coming to this movie for the quality of its performances, we’ll keep this brief — Statham is exactly as he’s always been in every movie in which he’s appeared (“The Bank Job,” “The Transporter,” “Crank,” etc.), McShane knows he’s mired in manure and he looks as if he could care less, and Allen is quite good. As a brittle she-devil, she stiffens her back convincingly while staring down the sort of dialogue that, when transcribed for a family newspaper, looks a lot like this: “@$%# *##@%$, &$$!”

As for the action, it mirrors the movie — it’s nothing exciting, nothing that hasn’t been done before. It’s just strictly middle-of-the-road grindhouse prison porn.

Grade: C

On Blu-ray disc

VAN HELSING written and directed by Stephen Sommers, 125 minutes, rated PG-13.

As chaotic as it is, Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing,” now available on Blu-ray disc, never wants for energy, it doesn’t take itself seriously, and as a whole, it’s rather fun.

Based on Bram Stoker’s stake-wielding character from his 1897 novel “Dracula,” the film gathers several well-known monsters and villains from the past and allows them to go at each other’s undead throats for the better half of two hours.

Hugh Jackman is Van Helsing, who has had something of an extreme makeover since Anthony Hopkins played him in 1992’s “Dracula.” The only thing sagging on this Van Helsing is the brim of his hat. Otherwise, he’s buff and young, a swarthy tough who finds himself multi-tasking for the Vatican.

Van Helsing has been charged to kill Count Dracula, who is played by Richard Roxburgh in the sort of buckles-and-brocade attire favored by Michael Jackson during his “Bad” period. Drac’s drag is unsettling, yes, but what’s more unsettling is that in order to kill the count, Van Helsing will first need to go through Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley), who turns out to be an intellectual softy, and the Wolf Man (Will Kemp), whose bite apparently holds the key to killing Dracula. Who knew?

Tossed into the mix is Kate Beckinsale’s Anna Valerious, who sounds like an invasive species of plant, and who undulates in ways that could make the folks in a red light district blush. Her tart, rolling Romanian accent gives the film the necessary jolt of camp it needs, but then so do the three shrieking, winged vamps who take to the skies to do Dracula’s dirty work. In a bloodthirsty, dead-three-centuries sort of way, they’re all perfectly charming if a bit high strung and unmannered, not unlike the movie itself.

Grade: B

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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