(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.
In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.
The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.
Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.
However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.
Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.
Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.
Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.
The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.
This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.
WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.
FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.
FINAL RATING: 6/10