Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke & Frederick Koehler
A lot of people despise Paul W.S. Anderson, but for my money, the man has made a few legitimately enjoyable films. His remake of DEATH RACE had been in the works since 2002. The script went through many rewrites and changed leading actors multiple times (Tom Cruise was originally slated to star at one point). After his disappointingly lame crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR that still managed to make a lot of box office bank, Anderson decided to helm a remake of the low-budget Roger Corman B-movie DEATH RACE 2000. Taking a more “serious” and “gritty” approach to the material, Anderson made a stupidly enjoyable guilty pleasure. This film is the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to a TWISTED METAL movie. While it definitely has noticeable problems, DEATH RACE is a fun ride nonetheless!
In the distant future of 2012, the U.S. economy has crashed into the ground. This has resulted in: jobs being lost, desperate people trying to make ends meet, and a prison population soaring beyond a breaking point. Former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) has been laid off from his factory job, but his day is about to go from bad to worse because he’s been framed for his wife’s murder. Wrongfully convicted, Jensen finds himself thrown into the brutal Terminal Island Prison. Things begin to look up when warden Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen) makes Jensen an offer he can’t refuse. Hennessey runs a huge pay-per-view gladiator event within the prison called “Death Race.” This “race” puts vicious killers in heavily armored, weaponized cars and pits them against each other on a trap-laden track. If he wants a ticket out of Terminal Prison, Jensen must survive three rounds of combat-filled racing…but not everything is as it seems.
No matter what piece of crap he might be starring in, Jason Statham always seems to command instant charisma and attitude. If there was a movie about a guy sitting on a toilet for 90-minutes straight, I’d probably watch it if Jason Statham starred in the leading role. With my admitted fandom for this bald British bloke, I’ll say that he makes a good action hero in this film. Though he’s pretty much playing the same tough guy type that he’s become known for, Statham was clearly having fun with the silly material and bulked up to an insane degree to play this revenge-driven racecar driver. As Ames, Statham growls, scowls, and also cracks the occasional one-liner. Joining Statham are a bevy of other familiar faces, some of whom probably only took these roles for a quick paycheck.
Mainly known for the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, Tyrese Gibson gets into a totally different type of vehicle as the aptly named Machine Gun Joe. Though his character is a one-note thug, there are a couple of moments that attempt to give him a bit of a personality…including his knack for getting his navigator partners killed and remaining totally unscathed himself. Ian McShane plays the old, wise Coach and isn’t taking this movie seriously at all, which makes for a lot of fun. He whips out wise cracks, pulls funny faces, and tries to have one character driven conversation with Statham that only serves to make his old man character all the more enjoyable. Coach feels like James Whitmore’s librarian from SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was turned into a cheesy B-flick sidekick and then given to Ian McShane.
Natalie Martinez plays Statham’s navigator, Case. She only serves as eye candy though, which the film blatantly states in a bit of throwaway dialogue about female prisoners being thrown in to add sex appeal to the already trashy pay-per-view death races. Is it really so hard to believe that TV producers wouldn’t be doing something along the lines of DEATH RACE if society crumbled? We’ve already suffered through Honey Boo Boo for crying out loud. Still, the most surprising faces pop up in the film’s antagonists. Academy Award winner Joan Allen plays conniving warden Hennessey and seems to have taken this role purely for a paycheck, but she also receives one of the most mind-boggling one-liners I’ve heard in any action movie ever. This film is pretty much worth watching for that moment alone. Also, a young Jason Clarke makes an appearance as Hennessey’s smarmily sadistic security guard.
For all of its fun silliness, DEATH RACE definitely has annoying faults that can’t be ignored. The actual rules of the race itself don’t make much sense in the scheme of the story. Ian McShane’s Coach explains that the first two races really don’t matter because they only serve as a means to slay the competition, which makes you wonder why keep the racing structure to begin with and not have a total free-for-all slaughter. There are also buttons on the track that function as Mario Kart-like activators for defenses and weapons in the cars. This means that DEATH RACE sort of feels like a video game with big actors, fiery explosions, and impressively constructed cars. As silly and stupid as that may sound, there’s dumb sense of entertainment to be found in DEATH RACE’s mindless violence and car-filled chaos. Even though the action scenes aren’t without some distracting shaky-cam and quick editing, they’re mostly well put together and feature plenty of cool demises.
Despite running a bit too long, having many glaring plot holes, and featuring a closing credits warning that treats its viewers like morons (advising you not to create backyard Death Races of your own), DEATH RACE manages to retain a stupidly simple charm that makes it into a big dumb guilty pleasure for me. If you can turn off your brain for two hours, then you’ll probably enjoy this dose of dumb-as-a-rock action carnage. Not every movie has to strive to be high art. Different genres aim to accomplish different goals. Sometimes. all you want to do is cut loose and watch a stupid action movie with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top characters, dumb writing, and things going boom. DEATH RACE is the equivalent of cinematic junk food. You’re not likely to retain much from it, but it’s fun and satisfying while it lasts.