If you're just tuning in, Hollywood is so bankrupt for ideas to make into movies, to keep the distribution pipeline flowing, they have begun to remake a number of films from the 60s and 70s. Some of these original films are questionable to begin with, but studio executives, producers and directors believe that if they throw modern special effects and a lot of money at ideas that were just okay to begin with, they will be able to remake the film. The new film will be bigger, stronger and faster. Could it start a franchise? Let's hope so, because these studios need some films to fill theaters, to create publicity for the DVD release, fueling the PPV run, which will in turn be great for the cable and television windows.
This is the reason Universal Studios decided to green light "Death Race", the 'new' film from writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson, the man behind "Mortal Kombat", "Resident Evil", "Event Horizon" and "AVP: Alien Vs. Predator". (Notice the preponderance of films based on video games.) Based on a Roger Corman film, the writer-director has moved the story forward a few years and upped the action ante by making the violence more extreme and cartoon-like, more violent and more video game like.
In the first stage of "Death Race", we learn all about the future. It is 2012 and America's economy has collapsed. Crime is on the rise and America's prisons are now run by corporations for profit. On Terminal Island, the warden (Joan Allen. Friggin' Joan Allen is in this piece of crap? More on that later) has come up with the idea of the Death Race, a pay-per –view event allowing people to watch prisoners race souped up cars through an obstacle course. Any prisoner that wins five races wins their freedom. Everyone else? They die. But of course, no one has won five races yet. Hennessey (that's the warden's name and because she only has a last name and also has a sidekick sadistic guard who does her bidding, you know she's going to be one tough customer) decides to up the viewer ship by pitting a former racecar driver, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, "The Bank Job", "The Transporter"), who has just arrived at her prison, against her rogues gallery of drivers. He is serving time for killing his wife and reluctantly agrees to participate against a rogue's gallery of drivers, including Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). He adopts the pit crew of the driver he is replacing (he died) and Coach (Ian McShane) and his co-horts try to help Jensen win the race. But Jensen begins to put two and two together and begins to realize he might never win the race, despite the warden's assurances. So he takes matters into his own hands.
In Stage Two of "Death Race", viewer ship is up by millions as Jensen and the rest of the drivers drove through the course, at breakneck speeds, driving over markers in the road granting them special weapons like 'bullets' and 'napalm' (there's the video game element Anderson seems to crave). They want to get there first, and start using the weapons for defense. If they don't, the weapons will be turned on them.
Much like the other rounds, viewers increase as drivers are killed and get in accidents leaving only a few drivers for each round. But in Stage Three, the final stage, the number of viewers plummets as Universal Studios realizes how few people are interested in watching this piece of drivel. And the actors soon realize what a mistake it was too appear in such a film. Sure, some actors will benefit from any exposure; Natalie Martinez who plays Case, Jensen's navigator, could only benefit; this is her first film, following some television work. She is pretty and the character walks around in skimpy t-shirts and daisy dukes. I'm sure this is regulation wear any time someone gets into a racecar, but that seems irrelevant to the filmmakers. And Jason Statham is the star. No one really expects a Jason Statham film to be memorable for anything other than the over choreographed action scenes. When he makes a film like "The Bank Job", it is a complete surprise to everyone, including the actor himself, that anything with his name attached could be that good. So, their careers won't be damaged by their appearance in "Death Race".
For Stage Three, we have two contenders left. The well respected, critically acclaimed, Oscar nominated Joan Allen will battle it out with Ian McShane, the once promising British actor. The winner will have their participation in this film crowned the "Biggest Blunder of their Career".
First, let's consider the case of Ian McShane. McShane helped to create the very memorable Al Swearengen in HBO's "Deadwood". Before and since the show ended, he has appeared in a number of promising films, but he seems destined to be a character actor. None of his film work has sent the world a buzzing. Perhaps the most interesting choice he has made was to appear in Woody Allen's "Scoop". This is the writer- director's second London-based film, the non-"Matchpoint" film. In short, "Scoop" is a terrible film starring Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, McShane and Woody Allen. Johansson and Allen team up to uncover whether Jackman's character is a killer. But Johansson becomes attracted to the dashing Jackman while Allen does his shtick as her sidekick. McShane plays a ghost, one of the killer's victims. So the film is pretty bad, but McShane's small role is interesting. McShane also had a small part in "The Golden Compass", but that film flopped. His best film work to date has been his voice work for "Kung Fu Panda", creating the character Tai Lung, a fearsome white tiger. His work helps make Tai Lung one of the best-animated villains to come along in a long time. His other film work is pretty forgettable.
So, it almost seems acceptable for McShane to appear in "Death Race". He is a character actor and his appearance helps to make him more recognizable. The next time the ten people who saw "Death Race" see him, they'll go "Oh, he played 'Coach' in "Race to the Death"". Hopefully, they will be watching a better film the next time they see him on the silver screen.
Joan Allen has been nominated for two Academy Awards. Joan Allen should stay far away from films like "Death Race". After her appearances in films like "The Bourne Trilogy", "The Ice Storm", "The Crucible" and "Pleasantville" among others, she should have two types of films being offered to her on a regular basis. Great female roles and even better female roles. She can play tough women (Pamela Lundy in "The Bourne" films), unhappy housewives ("The Ice Storm" and "Pleasantville"), a very bitter divorcee ("The Upside of Anger"), Pat Nixon ("Nixon") and more. She has range.
I am unsure why or how she ended up in "Death Race". If it was her agent's advice, she needs a new agent. If she wanted to take the role, for a change of pace, to play a tough woman, she has played tough women before. The role can't be that much of a stretch. I know every actor looks for new challenges, especially when you are as talented as Allen is in her craft, but taking on a role of this caliber is simply below her. I know every actress wants to have the "Ripley" (Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" films) role on her resume, but Hennessey is no Ripley, so it doesn't add anything to her career. Allen should follow the example of Meryl Streep. Critically acclaimed, Streep seems to garner Oscar nominations as quickly as she makes films. But the films she earns these nominations for are extremely serious, weighty films. "Sophie's Choice", "Out of Africa", "Kramer Vs. Kramer", "Silkwood". Streep has taken on a diverse group of roles beyond this, to provide challenges for herself and to broaden her repertoire. Everything from comedy ("She-Devil", "The Devil Wears Prada") to kid's films ("Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events") to musicals ("Mamma Mia!"). Sure, there have been some misses in Streep's career, but her track record is very high. Streep has range and has an incredible track record choosing the right projects with the right writers and directors attached, the right co-stars, the right subject matter.
Allen could have the same career. She has started to build the same sort of resume and reputation. But if she chooses too many films like "Death Race", takes too many large paychecks for the wrong films, her career will be affected. She might find herself playing character roles instead of leading roles. She might find herself taking more and more films with directors attached who are best known for adapting video games to the silver screen. She might find her next co-star is Vin Diesel or Jason Statham.
Oh, wait a minute… Right…
So at the send of stage three, we find the winner of "Death Race" is Joan Allen. And the winner is, in fact, the loser.