Movie Review - Jason Statham's 'Death Race'

Back in 1975, “Death Race 2000” attempted to make a political statement on the desensitization of society through violence in entertainment. It wound up a campy, dark comedy that’s earned a faithful cult following.

Better luck next, right? Hardly.

Its celluloid offspring harbors no such grand aspirations. Death Race owes as much to “The Running Man” and “Lock Up” than its namesake inspiration, Sure, if you look really deep you may find hints of rage against the reality TV machine, but it’s purely window dressing.

What writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson is really selling here is pure, unadulterated hell on wheels. Really, REALLY cool wheels, I might add. The end result is a lean, mean action picture with typical Anderson story deficiencies that only pure action junkies will enjoy. With its threadbare plot, expository dialogue and lightning fast pacing, it’s more Grindhouse than even “Death Proof” or “Planet Terror.”

It’s all happening in the very near, very bleak future after the world’s economy has nose-dived and unemployment has skyrocketed (we know this not only because of a text explainer at the beginning, but also because the entire film has a washed-out look to it that basically screams, ‘LIFE STINKS’). Prisons have become so overcrowded they’ve been taken over by corporations.

To turn a profit, Big Prison invents the Super Bowl of reality TV shows: Death Race. The rules are simple. You drive to survive. Lose and you’re out of gas, for good.

As Jensen Ames, Jason Statham is a loving husband and father, a hard-working Joe. But his life is suddenly upended when he’s framed for murder and sent to Terminal Island.

The Island is run by the sadistic Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), a crisply-attired woman so feared by the inmates she strolls through the prison yard unbothered.

Worried about a ratings decline after her star driver, the masked racer Frankenstein (David Carradine’s character in the ’75 film), is hurt in a crash, Hennessy offers Ames a deal. If the former pro driver races as Frankenstein and wins, he wins his freedom.

[Since Anderson is the guy behind “Resident Evil” and the “Alien vs. Predator” series, if you expected a more complex plot, you deserve whatever disappointment you may feel.]

The reality show angle is also played up with voiceovers and promos for the prisoners/drivers. They even get sexy female navigators who are bused in from the women’s jail. Hey, sex sells, especially in a dystopian future.

Statham spends the entire movie with a bullseye on his back and payback on his mind. Lucky for him his ride is a souped-up Mustang V8 Fastback with machine-gun turrets, napalm, oil spillers, and bulletproof paneling.

His biggest rival is Machine Gun Joe (a snarling Tyrese Gibson in the role Sylvester Stallone played in the original). They battle head-to-head through all three stages of the Death Race.

The races are well-staged but only when Anderson finally slows down his frenetic editing do we actually get to see what’s going on. Many times he’s cutting so fast in-between shots you don’t know which car’s shooting and which one’s flipping over. Is it too much to ask for a nice wide shot every once in a while??

On the plus side, he does find creative – and gruesome – new ways to kill off the drivers. Who knew a cigarette lighter could be so deadly?

The standout scene on the track involves a fiery shootout involving Frankenstein, Machine Gun Joe, and a vehicle called The Dreadnought. Picture the Mammoth Car from the old “Speed Racer” cartoon on steroids and that’s what the Dreadnought looked like.

The supporting cast is all straight out of the prison movie handbook, from the sadistic prison guards to the noble inmates.

As the veteran convict ‘Coach’, the head mechanic for Ames’ racing team, Ian McShane fills the ‘Eclipse’ role here as the wise old inmate (Two ‘Lock Up’ references in one review. That must be a Newsarama record!). Natalie Martinez plays Ames’ shotgun driver and is easily the hottest female inmate on film since Cybil Danning.

As for the star, this is familiar ground for Statham. Unlike his recent turn in “The Bank Job,” where he showed surprising acting range, Jensen Ames is right in Statham’s wheelhouse, sort of a down-on-his-luck cousin of Frank Martin. To his credit, you still root for the guy, but it would be nice to see Statham challenge himself more. This script offers precious few moments for character development, only pausing briefly to set up the next confrontation or race.

However limited Statham’s role is, Allen is much worse off. The movie’s principal villain, she’s also saddled with the worst lines.

What’s the point of hiring a three-time Oscar nominated actress if you’re giving her putrid dialogue like “If your freedom isn’t worth fighting for, then what on earth is?”

“Death Race” of course, isn’t aimed at fans of “The Upside of Anger.” This is pure, unapologetic adrenaline cinema for gearheads. And as late August releases go, I’ve seen worse (there’s a backhanded compliment).

A twist at the end leaves the door open for a sequel. Whether or not it happens depends on how many fans out there will forgive stripped-down stories in exchange for explosive car chases.

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