The plot is completely superfluous to what’s really going on--death and destruction behind the wheel of a car--but nevertheless there has to be some semblance of a story or it couldn’t be a feature film starring Jason Statham. In this case it’s a remake of a cheesy 1975 Roger Corman flick set in a near future where the world has (again) gone to hell in a hand basket. Statham plays Jensen Ames a former race car driver who is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the dreaded Terminal Island penitentiary so he can compete in the hugely popular Death Race. Inmates try to win by killing off their competitors with their cars last man standing kind of thing. Of course Jensen doesn’t want to have anything to do with such a spectacle and only wants revenge for his wife’s death--but the mean lady warden Weyland (Joan Allen) who makes a butt load of cash off these races begs to differ forcing Jensen into it…and well you can guess the rest. Again there isn’t anything too exciting to report here. Statham plays the same guy he has played in just about all his films--brooding sexy British can drive fast--which works out just fine in Death Race. The guy knows what works best for him and god bless him he never veers from it. There’s also some nice supporting turns by Deadwood’s Ian McShane as Coach Jensen’s main mechanic; Tyrese Gibson as Machine Gun Joe Jensen’s main competition; and Natalie Martinez as the hottie who gets to ride in the car with Jensen (don’t ask). But about the only actor in Death Race who truly looks like she’s relishing the fact she gets to chew up the scenery is Allen. One wonders in what universe she was persuaded to take this part (butt loads of cash perhaps?) but we are glad she took it. Director Paul W.S. Anderson really isn’t known for Oscar contenders but the guy understands over-the-top gratuitous violence better than most having helmed such classics (I’m kidding) as Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator. The first Death Race 2000 was a lot campier than this redo however. Death Race takes itself a wee bit more seriously than it should and could have benefitted from some of the original’s energy. Nonetheless it is exactly what you’d expect from a R-rated smash-‘em-up: cars and people being ripped apart in all kinds of ways. Good times. If you’re an adrenaline junkie Death Race will most certainly appeal to you.
It means that what little plot there is will be formulaic and predictable. It means a dashing hero will spout pithy one-liners while his sidekicks will try to be funny and fail. But there will also be a cool helicopter crash and a lot of firepower and maybe even some blood and guts. Cool! On that basis S.W.A.T. does not disappoint. It doesn't much matter that the villain of the story a drug trafficker/murderer/arms dealer called Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez) only really comes on the scene in the last 45 minutes or so or that until then the villain is any criminal anywhere in the city that comes in contact with the newly formed yet much-maligned five-person S.W.A.T. team that's the center of the story. Led by Sgt. "Hondo" Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) the team is composed mostly of the force's unreliable renegades and unwanted rejects: Jim Street (Colin Farrell) T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles) Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez) Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt) and Deke Kaye (LL Cool J). After an intense training period and a few impressive successes the underdog team is called in to save the day when Montel makes a televised offer of $100 million to anyone who can break him out of jail--and L.A.'s criminal element comes out in force to do so.
The lack of a plot during the first hour and a half of this movie is probably why the studio is euphemistically billing it as "character-driven." It's kind of like saying that tiny efficiency apartment you're renting is "cozy." Don't let them get one over on you though; these characters are every bit as shallow as you expect gun-toting action heroes to be. If you want to know what drives somebody to tackle a profession that requires them to shoot people in cold blood on an almost daily basis you won't find out watching S.W.A.T.. Farrell at least seems to want to get at the underbelly of the S.W.A.T. psychology but his stereotypically heroic character lacks the complexity that would allow him to do it. So Farrell rolls those limpid brown eyes wildly in their sockets as if he's trying to let out his inner serial killer and mumbles his way through the lines. Jackson on the other hand doesn't even try to give us more. He simply phones this one in ("$20 million? Summer blockbuster? Sure I'll do it. What's it about again?"). Fortunately Rodriguez is more bearable as the tough Sanchez--she lights up the screen and has great timing--and Martinez makes a very sexy bad guy.
The amount of gun violence in S.W.A.T. is particularly startling even for a big blockbuster because the aforementioned shallow characters never really reflect on what they do. The film justifies its violence in one line of dialogue--"S.W.A.T. is a life saving organization not a life taking one"--yet we only meet one person whose life was saved and even she took a bullet in the process. But we do see an awful lot of nameless faceless criminals get blown to bits. Don't get me wrong; I'm no Joe Lieberman. I loved Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and I think Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are among the best movies ever made. It's not that there's even anything wrong with a good ol' fashioned shoot-'em-up movie--although how S.W.A.T. ever got a PG-13 rating is beyond me. Just don't patronize the audience with some false justification for blowing away half the cast and most of the extras. We're really much smarter than that.