Hey kids, it's time for Compare 'N Contrast!

In 1975, Roger Corman produced Death Race 2000, a freaked-out exploitation film cum satire, in which the United Provinces of America, circa the year 2000, has turned into a fascist state (and possibly a communist fascist state at that) with a fetish for Roman-style entertainment and neo-Nazism. The particular bread-and-circus that the ruling Bipartisan Party uses to keep the population quiet is an annual cross-country road rally, in which men and women with souped-up cars drive at crazy speeds across the abandoned highways, while earning points for hitting civilians along the way. Though there is probably no way to argue that it is a "good" film, it is unnaturally interesting, and almost certainly my favorite Corman film of the post-Code era.

In 2008, Paul W.S. Anderson wrote and directed Death Race, a noisy action flick, in which the privatisation of the US prison system has lead one enterprising warden, Ms. Hennessey (Joan fucking Allen, of The Ice Storm) of New York's Terminal Island, has figured out a way to turn a huge profit from her business is to broadcast semiannual races between the prisoners, races hinging on the idea that anybody at any moment might get blowed-up. The show is a smash hit, and sometime in the year 2012, Hennessey connives to have former race star Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) framed and imprisoned to replace her deceased superstar (who, predecease, is voiced by Keith Carradine, in the only neat nod to the elder film). There is probably no way to argue that it is a "good" film.

The differences between those two scenarios is vast enough that a body has to wonder why Anderson didn't just call his film something else and spare us all the indignity of a "remake". I guess he figured the title would get asses in the theater. But the biggest difference isn't in the plot, it's in the tone. Where Paul Bartel's original was a loony comedy-satire crammed full of car chases, the new one is a straight-up action film done in the grand Anderson style, which means a whole lot of noise and frantic editing that leaves it basically impossible to figure out what's going on. Anderson has never been aught but Michael Bay without the poetry, and his films tend to be as much fatiguing as they are exciting.

The closest Death Race comes to satire is in its opening crawl, where the words "private corporations" are in bold red print - that's right, it's an anti-privatisation text, though a tremendously murky one - and the frequent reference to computers and hits, indicating that some minor amount of thought went into how this world is a development of our own. Mostly, though, it's just shot after shot of heavily-modified cars screaming through a giant post-industrial prison yard. And look, I'm not one to judge quick editing harshly. I thought The Bourne Ultimatum was the next best thing to a masterpiece, and all the criticism about how the car chase in The Dark Knight is confusingly edited just makes me weep for the critics' unwillingness to pay attention. But Death Race, man, just gave me a headache.

I'll say this in the film's favor: almost all of the car chases are done practically, with real cars slamming into each other on a real set at really high speeds. So if nothing else, there's real heft to the crashes and explosions missing in something like the glossy Speed Racer. And that, in turn, sets up the film's best gag, where Anderson proves that, contra his opponents (like me), he actually does have a sense of humor: after the film fades to black, but before the credits start, there's some car-commercial boilerplate about how all this was done by professionals on a closed track.

Other than that, and the grimy, desaturated cinematography by Scott Kevan, the only compelling argument in favor of the movie's existence is Oscar nominee Joan Allen (The Contender), in what seems like it should be the least-explicable performance of her career. "Seems like", because when you actually get down to watching the movie, it's clear that she took the role because it sounded hella cool to play an unmitigated villain with lines like "Cocksucker! Fuck with me and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk." Yessir, Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger) gets to deliver that line of dialogue.

And she's having an obvious blast doing it; only Ian McKellan regularly turns in such self-satisfied performances in such dogs as Allen is doing here. I suppose that after enough films like Yes, one must decide to take a film only because playing a wholly unsubtle role is fun, and a reminder of why one got into acting in the first place. So I'll give Joan Allen this much: she sneers like a real sumbitch, and turns in one of the great Ee-vil performances of 2008.

Elsewhere in the film, Statham gives his typical Growling Brit performance that is only as good as the film permits - and has never, for my money, been this boring - while Ian McShane stands around intoning grim witticisms without putting a whole lot of energy into the script. Though it's never bad to see Ian McShane. Still, the human factor in the film isn't able to compete with the noisiness and the explodiness.

All that being said, the generally adequate quality of the noise and explosions make this the best of all Paul W.S. Anderson's films, although how much lower we can set the fucking bar, I don't know. It's like saying, "man that last herpes outbreak I had was the best one ever!" Which, upon reflection, is doubtlessly a comfort to the herpes sufferer.