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Death Race 2000 (1975)
by Roger Corman
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Death Race"

If you like testosterone with your octane, this is your adrenalin fix. Not only does the action junkie get his rush here, he gets clearly drawn characters and a plotline as genre additives. If it's not the kind of rush you're into, don't blame writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson who gives you exactly what his title promised.

He drives us into a somewhat distopian future, which seems to mean that people in authority can do pretty much what they want to. Full-out murder witnessed by millions doesn't even get you a hearing, much less a conviction--as long as the bloodletting takes place on a race track. During these days, the general economy doesn't look any better than in 2008, either. Which is why tough-hided, ex-con Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) loses his job in an iron foundry. But he's in for far worse than unemployment.

For such a life-scarred man, Jensen is blessed with an understanding wife and a lovely infant daughter. He loves his family and they love him back. And, suddenly, while he's cleaning off the grime of his last day of work, it's all taken away from him. He enters the kitchen where he last spoke with his wife only to find her on the floor, bleeding, dead. A man in a ski mask subdues him and departs with a gesture, satisfied with his work.

The cops arrive immediately afterward, assume Jensen murdered his wife and, a month later, he's driven into the remote, high-security penitentiary known as Terminal Island. Once here, odds are against your breathing free air again.

Running the place is warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), a women whose description as hard, scheming, merciless, sociopathic, murderous and, say, bloodthirsty doesn't begin to do her justice. She is so feared by the callous cutthroats she has imprisoned, she walks through the yard unguarded, as though to remind her cons who's in charge. As a warden she's her own arbiter of justice; as a mercenary of the system, she's a ruthless entrepreneur.

Under her direction, the three-day Death Race has become the most subscribed-to pay-TV program. Iron lady Hennessey is the master of ceremonies, the director, the designer and the casting agent. The chief of guards is her psychopathic mirror image.

It took murdering Jensen's wife and framing him for it to get him here, but nothing's a problem for this cold cookie when she wants something. And, she wanted Jensen. For the game. Jensen was, at one time the three-time speedway champion and just the man to take over the hero role behind the iron mask of Frankenstein who inconveniently died during the last race. Jensen is probably the only man alive who could don the mask and keep her contest's subscription level at its peak.

Each race car is designed for death: armor-plated and weaponized, tricked out with machine guns, flamethrowers, grenade launchers and, ultimately, anti-tank missiles. Detailing from hell. The prison track is fitted with embedded remote controls that allow Hennessey to activate or deactivate the weaponry, which she uses to manipulate the race like a symphony. Of brutality.

Each car has its own garage pit and crew to rebuild the damage from the preceding race. The men behind the wheels are killers and psychopaths with only one thing to lose. Their freedom. If they complete the 3-day race alive and in front, according to Hennessey, she signs their release papers. Each driver gets a voluptuous female from a woman's prison to ride as his spotter and weapons-delivering sidekick.

The only rule in the race combat is that there are no rules. Drivers are free to do whatever they want to, and Hennessey, at the master controls, is free to make it as despicable and bloody as she can--ultimately by bringing out her secret weapon guaranteed to finish off the race in a grand finale: the dreadnaught, a grenade-launching, napalm-throwing double-tanker, heavily-armored monster with mangling wheel extenders. Everything's been thought of for the climax of the three-race series. As for the promise of the winner getting released... who'll be standing?

The starting drivers are ten, including such misfits as Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), who everyone thought killed Frankenstein last time out, but that was just a man in a steel mask, easily replaced for the subscribers by any deadly-enough badass to assume the role; Pachenko (Max Ryan), Grimm (Robert LaSardo in yet another patented psychopath role); and others. One of them is the man who killed Jensen's wife.

Revenge is the fuel that drives the game, and the movie. And, shall we say, it can be sweet, indeed?

Statham--a thinking-man's action hero who first wowed us with his calmness, cool and martial arts mastery in "The Transporter,"--is in his groove with this material. His highly toned machismo seethes with heat and hate as his superior mentality holds it in check until the sweet moment when the scales of justice find balance through the agency of payback. (If you're still with me here, wait'll you see how he deals with ice-lady's juiced-up monster toy).

Joan Allen (who appears to have had a face-lift), after many a classy sypathetic role (dimensional CIA chief in "The Bourne Supremacy," presidential nominee in "The Contender"), applies her huge acting skill to pure villainy as concocted by the film's all-out approach to horrific emasculation. What flows in this babe's veins is 200 proof venom, and she's got the fangs to deliver it. I wonder what essence of engine Andersen was smelling to come up with this character's level of unapologetic mayhem.

Ian McShane as Jensen's crew boss is consistently superb and a great go-to guy for explanations, punctuations and leadership cool. Natalie Case adds a touch of fine sensuality to the life-or-death tensions, pumping up the male heart rate and the poster art along with the metalic bass beat of ex-Tangerine Dream's Paul Haslinger's throbbing soundtrack.

Get it now!
The Soundtrack

"The Fast and the Furious" fans will want to fire up their afterburners to get over to see this. If there are any fans of "Speed Racer," ditto. As for all the critics who are putting this down as a hollow action piece, I say they just don't recognize a film that's so purely crafted and calculated to do what it set out to, without literary diversion and with a title that tells it all. It has all the gas the trip requires and not an ounce more. And, I've got several million teenage boys (and a few girls) who will confirm this at the boxoffice. Now, step on it!

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Joan Allen and Jason Statham,
warden from hell and plaything with a mind of his own.
Want your freedom? Are you deadly enough to earn it?

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