Death Race review

Paul W. Anderson concentrates on the action in his re-imagining of the 1975 cult classic about a deadly, no-rules car rally...

I have a problem with any movie based heavily on cars. They always affect me a bit too much, and usually not for the best. Here’s an example:

After I saw Grindhouse , I sped all the way home. Not just like a little speeding, I mean a lot speeding. I had the highway to myself, so I just put the hammer down. Not all the way, but farther than I usually speed. After watching Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000 , I wanted to strap some .50 caliber machine guns onto the roof of my 1992 Buick four-door and drop a chunk of 6-inch-thick steel armor plating onto the jerk who tailgated me all the way home.

Death Race acts as something of an anti- Fast and the Furious. Whereas the latter film features colorful, tiny, non-masculine cars skittering about on city streets in underground races, Death Race features heavy, masculine, armor-plated tankmobiles machine-gunning one another. There’s no hyper-tuned whining 4-cylinder engine in the bunch, either. We’re talking cars with muscle and heft, from Machine Gun Joe’s train-like 2004 Dodge Ram 5.7 liter Hemi V8, Pachenko’s 1966 Buick Riviera V8 Nailhead, Frankenstein’s 2006 Ford Mustang GT, 14K’s 1980 Porsche 911, and Colt’s V12 1991 Jaguar XJS. Maybe I’m too much of an American, but I just can’t get excited about a bunch of Mazdas and Nissans, no matter how fast they’re supposedly able to go. Good fuel economy is for wimps. I need a car that roars in my movies, not a car that whines.

Death Race is a movie that roars as loud as its featured cars. Not only does the film roar , it explodes a lot, too. There’s near-constant machine gun fire during the racing sequences, and the few talking scenes are often interrupted by fist-fights. There’s not much in the way of subtlety in this film, which basically scraps most of the sociopolitical commentary of the original Death Race 2000(aside from some jabs at easy targets Internet voyeurism and big business) in favor of text narration and an opening riot.

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How did the US get so dystopian? It’s never really explained, but you didn’t come to Death Raceto ponder the future; you came to see things explode. Here’s what we do know…

The US economy is in the toilet. Everyone is unemployed, the prison population is significantly higher, private corporations run everything, and the most popular sport in the world is the Death Race, a live, uncensored streaming video car-stravaganza organized by the prison system’s manipulative Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Unfortunately for the warden, her most popular driver Frankenstein (voiced briefly by David Carradine in a thrilling cameo) gets killed. Ratings plummet, so she recruits ex-NASCAR racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) to don the mask and get behind the wheel of The Monster. Well, not so much ‘recruits’ as ‘frames him for his wife’s murder, then offers him his freedom if he drives for her.’

The first driver to win five of the eponymous Death Races wins his freedom. Each car gets a support crew of talented mechanics (most notable being Ian McShane’s character Coach) and pretty female navigators (most notable being Frankenstein’s second Case, played by Natalie Martinez) bussed in from the women’s prison to add a little sex appeal to the race (except for Machine Gun Joe [Tyrese Gibson, thus completing the circle between Death Race and The Fast and the Furious ], who may or may not be gay). Like most sports, the drivers are personalities in themselves: white supremacist Pachenko (Max Ryan), Triad gangster 14k (Robin Shou), ex-NASCAR driver Travis Colt (Justin Mader), and serial-killing sociopath Grimm (Robert LaSardo), along with some disposable drivers who are guaranteed to die.

There’s not a lot in the way of plot, mostly interesting-looking characters driving awesome-looking cars. Paul W.S. Anderson wrote and directed this reimagining of the drive-in classic, stripping away a lot of the more comical elements of the original Death Race 2000 and adding a healthy dollop of Twisted Metal-inspired chaos. Mr. Milla Jojovich will never be known for his prowess with a pen, but he certainly knows his way around a techno-scored action sequence.

Like the cars in the film, Anderson puts the action pedal to the movie metal, and never lets off the gas for very long. There are a lot of entertaining race sequences, no CGI stunts, a cast that is entirely too good for the material they’re handed (especially Joan Allen), Jason Statham being shirtless, and a serious amount of brainless fun. I think I don’t give Paul W.S. enough credit for being a fairly talented action director, even if he’s not the best handler of actors or the best scriptwriter in history. At least in this case, he gave me enough bread and circuses to make me forget my problems for an hour and a half.

Step on the gas or get out of the way! US correspondent Ron Hogan’s got places to go and stuff to explodify! Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness , and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi .

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3 out of 5