Standard action fare highlighted by moments of truly repellent violence, Paul W.S. Anderson´s Death Race should please genre fans and represents a solid effort among the director´s oeuvre. Of course, that´s not saying much for the man behind Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator, a kind of low(er) budget version of Michael Bay whose films are typically even more empty (and empty-headed) than the maestro. 1975 movie that this film was purportedly based upon, Death Race 2000, was certainly no classic, but at least it had something to say. Anderson´s flick doesn´t deserve to bear the name.
Not in the least because, well, this Death Race isn´t even really a remake of the previous picture. The ´75 version starred Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine and involved a Cannonball Run-like futuristic cross country race where extra points are earned by mowing down pedestrians. The hit-and-run aspect was a smallish aspect of the overall plot, but the true heart of the film, which was a biting satire on the need-for-speed mentality and the general state of driving. If anything, Death Race 2000 didn´t fully succeed because of Roger Corman budget restraints; the core of the film could only be improved upon. So what does Anderson do while scripting this remake? If you guessed throw everything out the window and become another Running Man clone, you win. Besides the futuristic setting and some character names, this Death Race has only the most strenuous of connections to the previous picture.
As some pre-title scrawl meticulously explains, the US economy has failed, crime has risen, and corporations now run prisons for profit, which includes pitting prisoners against each other in brutal races for a reality pay-per-view TV program called Death Race (despite all the gratuitous violence, these death races actually play out like Mario Kart, with combatants driving over special patches and winning guns, oil slicks, gas clouds, or tacks to slip up their opponents. I´m surprised they didn´t include the giant banana peels.) Masked champion Frankenstein (David Carradine, reprising his earlier role in a voice-only cameo) is killed during a race, leaving crooked warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) without her big draw. Coincidentally, former mainstream racing champ Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison (did they really have to kill his wife? Couldn´t they just alter some paperwork and get him for tax fraud?) Of course, Jensen is recruited to become Frankenstein, he´ll win his freedom if he wins the next race and (yawn) I´m sure you can see where this is going. Mind you, this is all in the first ten minutes of the film; cue up 90 minutes of bloody vehicular mayhem the likes of which they used to show in Driver´s Ed and you´ll get a close approximation of what the rest of the movie is like.
And what can I say, Anderson does here what he set out to do, nothing more than provide us with meaningless, braindead action; if you´ve enjoyed his previous work, chances are you´ll dig this one too. Statham is a solid action hero, Ian McShane adds some color as the leader of Jensen´s pit crew, and Tyrese Gibson has some mean-spirited fun as Machine Gun Joe, the character Stallone played in the earlier film. I wish I could say Joan Allen lends something to the film, but for most of the movie she´s just shouting “goddammit” in front of a TV screen while a smirking guard watches over her shoulder.
In a movie where men (and women) become splattered roadkill every five or so minutes, the ultimate comeuppance Jensen delivers to those responsible for killing his wife is strangely lacking.
Repo! The Genetic Opera is what happens when the filmmakers set out to make cult movie. They´ve got the cult part right: outlandish characters, fetishistic undertones, nonstop song-and-dance, inventive camerawork, high-contrast lighting, Paris Hilton, etc. Now, about that tricky movie part: there´s no story, no plot, no characters we can care about, no emotional investment, no reason whatsoever to watch. I appreciated 5 or 10 minutes of Repo! – it´s certainly something different – but I was exhausted after 100 minutes of this nearly unwatchable mess, and looking back I´m surprised I managed to make it through at all.
A comic-book montage gives us the setting: in the not-so-distant future, an epidemic of organ failures has ravaged the world and led to the success of GeneCo, an organ transplant company that sends out repo men to retrieve hearts and livers and spleens should anyone miss a payment. Slowly, our cast of characters is introduced: Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich), a sort of narrator; Shilo (Alexa Vega), a young girl with a rare disease; her overprotective father Nathan (Anthony Head), who also moonlights as a repo man; Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), the owner of GeneCo; his three repellent children, played by Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, and Ogre from Skinny Puppy; and opera star Blind Mag, played by renowned soprano Sarah Brightman in what – as far as I can tell – is her feature film debut. I wish I could describe the plot, but there´s none to be found here: throughout the duration of the movie, these characters simply sing backstory to us, mostly about Shilo´s mother, who died during childbirth. During the course of the actual movie, nothing at all seems to happen; a few characters die at the end, but that feels perfunctory more than anything.
And oh yeah, this is an opera – every single bit of godawful dialogue is sung to us during unmemorable, mostly awful songs that span a number of genres. Now, if you like the music here you might enjoy the movie. Me, I wasn´t exactly humming Can’t Get It up If the Girl’s Breathing on my way out of the cinema.
But it isn´t all bad. Brightman is terrific, and I could easily watch and listen to her sing – no matter how bad the songs are – for the entirety of a film. Unfortunately, she has the smallest role here, and only participates in two of the songs. Zdunich, who wrote the screenplay and the original play the film is based on, is also good as our quasi-narrator, and sings the film´s best song, about drug addiction.
As for the rest of the cast, the less said the better. I think this is the first and last opera we´ll see from Paul Sorvino. Hilton is not only bad but seems to infect the other actors whenever she´s on the screen. At times this is embarrassing to watch.
Take The Rocky Horror Picture Show, replace the campy fun with dour sadism, and you´ll and up with Repo! Or, imagine one of the Saw pictures as a musical. Director Darren Lynn Bousman cut his teeth on Saw II, III, and IV before moving on to this. Someday, Repo! will find its cult, but I doubt even the cult will consider it objectively good. All others – stay far away.
An effectively chilling but mostly offputting horror offering, Bryan Bertino´s The Strangers plays mostly like Michael Haneke´s Funny Games without the art-film subtext. It´s a surprisingly minimalist horror film that feels miscast as a major studio offering: a trio of strangers wearing creepy masks terrorize an innocent couple in an isolated vacation home. That´s all there is to it, no plot or character development, all terror and atmosphere. This won´t be most people´s cup of tea, and I wonder what the point of it is; while it´s effective, should it even exist?
James (Scott Speedman) has just proposed – unsuccessfully – to girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler). What was supposed to be a romantic weekend in a rustic, isolated cabin has turned into a rather unpleasant excursion. James calls his friend and asks him to come & bail him out. He and Kristen talk about, well, what is there to talk about? Suddenly – there´s a knock on the door. They answer to find a young girl asking, simply “Is Tamara home?” In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. They tell her she has the wrong house like it might be a common mistake. By now, the creepy factor is high but, for whatever reason, the characters on the screen don´t seem to be feeling it. James goes into town to get some cigarettes, leaving Liv alone in the house. Things don´t end up well.
First-time director Bertino handles himself surprisingly well, creating and maintaining a chilling atmosphere and overcoming some of the usual horror film clichés. Speedman and (especially) Tyler are good as the terrorized couple. This is one of the scarier mainstream Hollywood films in recent memory.
There´s a genre of movies, I´m not sure what to call them, but they include Last House on the Left, Day of the Woman (I Spit on Your Grave), and recently, David DeFalco´s Chaos. These movies can´t easily be criticized because they accomplish what they set out to do, which is, namely, to repulse us, (and, intentionally or not) to make us question what we are watching as entertainment. The Strangers is a big-budget version of these movies, and, similarly, I don´t know what to make of it. It´s certainly well-made but I wouldn´t recommend anyone go and see it. At least Funny Games made us think while beating us senselessly with the nihilism.
The Strangers is purportedly ‘based on a true story´, perhaps the same case that inspired the (very) similar French movie Ils (Them). Namely, that of (per IMDb) “an Austrian couple that was murdered by three teenagers in their vacation home in The Czech Republic.” Of course, no records of this ‘true case´ seem to exist. Director Bertino also quotes the Manson Family murders as an inspiration.