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Road rage

Movies | Death Race earns its rating-and little else

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Can you imagine a world in which some vacuous studio executive told his investors that Harvey Corman's schlockfest Death Race 2000 was such a visionary masterpiece that it was their duty to remake it? And can you further imagine a world in which nobody in the room even giggled a little?

That, apparently, is the world in which we live, and so we have whoever that guy was (I doubt he'll be making his name public) to thank for the new vehicle, Death Race.

Starring professional scowler Jason Statham alongside Oscar nominee Joan Allen and Golden Globe winner Ian McShane, who should both know better, Death Race is about what you'd expect: In the year whatever, some horrible crypto-Christian lady (Allen) decides that the lifers in her prison should have fatal automobile accidents as often as possible and stages a series of races with machine-gun-enabled cars to facilitate this.

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These races are broadcast live as entertainment, and we are free to shake our heads at a world gone mad because the beatings and dismemberments we are watching did not result in any actual deaths. They look pretty realistic, though.

Our hero (Statham), of course, has been framed for the murder of his wife, and the evil lady is holding his infant daughter hostage unless he races as "Frankenstein," a masked inmate who died of his injuries in the movie's opening sequence. He just has to win the one, rigged race to get his freedom.

The movie earns its R rating with shootings, beatings, and one upsettingly memorable mincing, but for what it is-a cross between NASCAR and Ultimate Fighting-Death Race has its moments. The cars are neat, the races are fun (although the "power-up" system used in the film is depressingly similar to "Mario Kart"), and the explosions are pretty.

Christians will doubtless be annoyed by the character of Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), a deeply religious homosexual sadomasochist (just like the one next door), but it's hard to take too much umbrage when the movie itself is so aggressively, intentionally dumb.

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