Death Race


Death Race

Who was that masked man?

(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.

In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.

The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.

Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.

However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.

Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.

Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.

Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.

This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.

FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pandorum

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li


Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

What martial arts videogame adaptation would be complete without its zen moment?

(20th Century Fox) Kristin Kreuk, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou, Chris Klein, Taboo, Moon Bloodgood, Edmund Chen, Chung Pei Pei. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise is one of the most beloved and popular videogames in history. A live-action version starring Jean-Claude van Damme was made in 1994. How would this stack up?

Chun Li (Kreuk) is a concert pianist who has been through a great deal in her young life. Trained in the martial arts as a child by her father (Chen), she watches in horror as he is kidnapped by the villainous industrialist Bison (McDonough) and his gigantic flunky Balrog (Duncan).

After her mom passes away, Chun Li receives a mysterious scroll that may hold the key to finding her father and restoring justice. It directs her to seek out Gen (Shou), a mysterious martial arts master who alone can complete her training and prepare her for the most important mission of her life.

Also on Bison’s trail is are a pair of Interpol agents; Nash (Klein), a brash American and Maya (Bloodgood), a hottie of indeterminate nationality. As the paths of those who pursue Bison converge, it is discovered that he is buying up large parcels of land in Bangkok with the intent of introducing an upsurge in crime to drive the property values down in order for him to get the largest amount of profit when he erects condos and high rises in the bustling harborside neighborhood.

Bison has an army of private henchmen at his disposal and he’s ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants. Chun Li must go beyond her own capabilities if she is to survive and rescue her father.

The plot summary is somewhat sparse, but really, what can you expect from a videogame adaptation? The point of the movie is to generate action sequences and eye candy set to a throbbing rock score that will give the target audience of pimply-faced gamers a chubby just thinking about it. I don’t know that the movie succeeds on that level.

For one thing, I don’t understand why you would make a movie adaptation of a videogame and then make subtle and unnecessary changes in the game’s mythos that is sure to alienate your target audience. I don’t mind artistic license and when adapting something out of any medium you have to expect changes to be made, but those should be changes that enhance the storytelling process or reflect the technology available to recreate the action, not changes that are seemingly out of the writer’s ego to place their own stamp on a franchise that was doing just fine before they decided to make a movie based on it.

The fight sequences, to be fair, are pretty well done at least to my admittedly untrained eye. I’m sure martial arts purists were shuddering at some of the moves executed by the actors; at times even I could tell that the actors weren’t hitting the moves correctly. That’s a definite problem for a movie so rooted in martial arts. Also to the good, Bartkowiak has created a look as far as the Bangkok backstreets are concerned that is stylish and fun. The visual aspect of the film is solid.

Duncan is having a marvelous time as Balrog. When he grins, you get the impression that he’s thinking “I’m getting paid for this?” His work makes the movie watchable. Sadly, some of the other actors don’t fair as well. Klein, whose previous career highlight was the American Pie films, is probably not the right guy for the role of Nash which might have benefitted from someone along the lines of a Taylor Kitsch or a Chris Hemsworth. Also McDonough’s accent slips from a standard American to a pseudo-Irish oddly; it winds up being a distraction.

There are also some strange plot devices; for example, when Chun Li announces that she needs to do further research into Bison’s criminal enterprise, the first place she goes is Google. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Gambino family had a website?

This is meant to be disposable, easily digestible action fare and to a large extent it is. The movie is seriously flawed, however, which may give those looking for superior action films pause. There is enough to like here that I can give it a slight recommendation, but be aware that even those who love the videogame may have some problems with the movie version.

WHY RENT THIS: Bartkowiak has a distinctive visual style and most of the fight scenes are impressive to the layman. Duncan seems to be having a great time and attacks his role with gusto.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Standard videogame adaptation fare with not a whole lot of plot to speak of.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of martial arts violence, but nothing that would bother the average teen. If you think it’s okay for your child to play the videogame, chances are the movie will be fine too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robin Shou has also appeared in the Mortal Kombat movies, making him the only cast member to date to have appeared in other movies based on videogames.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD include an animated comic book called Street Fighter: Round One – Fight! which should appeal to fans of the videogame series, as well as some features on the training the actors went through to become onscreen martial arts masters. The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track (a favorite feature of Da Queen).

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: From Paris With Love