When I tried to convince co-critic Justin Souther to watch Death Race with me—out of a spirit of nothing but good fellowship, I assure you—I argued, “It might be good. You never know.” Fixing me with a patronizing stare, Mr. Souther replied, “It’s called Death Race, Ken.” I took his point. He didn’t even have to mention the fact that those other filmmaking Andersons—Wes and Paul Thomas—probably ought to consider litigation to prevent Paul W.S. Anderson from using the same last name. Failing that, they might try to buy him off.
For those who don’t pay attention to such things, Paul W.S. Anderson makes movies like Mortal Kombat (1995), Resident Evil (2002) and Alien vs. Predator (2004). This is slightly different from the filmic contributions of the other—all unrelated—Andersons. Whatever may be said to the detriment of Paul W.S. Anderson, it has to be admitted that his films do live up to the promises of their titles. There is “kombat” and it frequently is mortal in Mortal Kombat. Aliens do have grudge matches with predators in Alien vs. Predator etc. His latest film follows the same tradition. There is a race and there is death—quite a lot of it, in fact. If nothing else, his movies represent truth in advertising.
Derived from the 1975 Roger Corman-produced (Corman also coproduced this version) Paul Bartel cult opus Death Race 2000, this Death Race largely eschews its predecessor’s attempts at campy satire in favor of elaborate, violent and very noisy action. The original dealt with a decadent future society where entertainment is offered up via a cross-country race in which drivers score points based on who they run over. The new film is more hermetic. Set on a prison island, it’s all about inmate drivers trying to off each other in order to win races and thereby their freedom. Both films, however, seek to present America as plunging headlong into a level of decadence usually associated with ancient Rome. The biggest difference is that the original pegged the time as 25 years into the future, whereas this one is only four years away. Is this progress?
This last difference probably accounts for the new film’s grimmer tone and physical ugliness. While better made than the original, which looks cheap and like it was edited with a meat-ax, the new Death Race is awash in a kind of gray-brown desperation-chrome look. Any sense of cheeky, tasteless fun has vanished. If this is satire, it’s played out with such a straight face and in such drabness that it makes the über-seriousness and dark hues of The Dark Knight look like a carefree romp. Unfortunately for Death Race, the film itself is too dumb and shallow to support such faux weightiness.
As a story, it’s a workable variant on the original. Jason Statham stars as Jensen Ames (named for the Brit sports car the Jensen Interceptor, no less), a former NASCAR driver who is framed for his wife’s murder by media-mogul prison-warden Hennessey (Joan Allen!). Hennessey forces her new prisoner, Jensen, into driving in her hit pay-per-view TV show, Death Race, disguised as her late (but unlamented) popular driver known as Frankenstein. Racing, duplicity and mayhem result. Fair enough, I suppose, but just how her show attracts 70 million viewers at $100 to $300 a pop—in the wake of an on-screen title that informs us that the U.S. economy has collapsed—is never explained. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a movie designed for heavy thinking—or much thinking at all.
Overall—and despite the best efforts of a cast that’s too good for it—Death Race is a classic example of “it is what it is.” If what you’re after is a lot of souped-up, machine-gun-festooned, rocket-launcher-equipped gray cars racing around the confines of a gray enclosure in the middle of a gray prison, while the participants kill each other in various gory or explosive or fiery ways, you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie better suited to your desires. In this regard, it’s certainly efficient. In any other, it’s rather deficient. Rated R for strong violence and language.