Death Race

Movie Information

The Story: In the near future, a former race-car driver is railroaded into participating in the lethal Death Race television show -- with both his freedom and his life at stake. The Lowdown: A competently made, violent action movie that delivers what it promises and little else.
Score:

Genre: Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Action With Mayhem
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator)
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez
Rated: R

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

13 thoughts on “Death Race

  1. Sean Williams

    Unfortunately for Death Race, the film itself is too dumb and shallow to support such faux weightiness.
    Plus, that gladiatorial bread-and-circus motif sounds distinctly hypocritical when tacked onto a film the express purpose of which is to glorify vehicular homicide. It’s sort of like Brazt‘s palliative message of anti-consumerism.

    Actually, though, Anderson’s next project could be interesting. It purportedly centers around the Australian underground sport of marsupial-fighting.

  2. TonyRo

    This is such a stretch for Statham…..a high adreneline, fast paced action movie…..but involving cars. I can see where it’s not like CHAOS, CRANK, THE TRANSPORTER 1 & 2, WAR, THE BANK JOB, SNATCH, LOCK STOCK & TWO SMOKING BARRELS, REVOLVER, IN THE NAME OF THE KING, and THE ITALIAN JOB. I really look forward to more of his versatility in THE TRANSPORTER 3, CRANK 2, and THE BRAZILIAN JOB.

  3. Louis

    —Death Race is a classic example of “it is what it is.”

    Oh GOD! Ken! Not the use of the dreaded idiomatic “it is what it is”–my penultimate least favorite expression in the English language. In what application, setting, context, world, universe, galaxy, or movie review does it not apply. Right? (The worst expression being: “Bless your heart” or any derivation of the “Bless his, her, their–etcetera–that follows with the word “heart.”

    This review has the wittiest, most finespun use of a single punctuation mark–in this case a singular parenthetical exclamation point following Joan Allen’s name–that I’ve seen in some time. Its deployment communicates all one needs to know about the criminal appearance of this talented actress in this dreck.

    Bravo.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Ah, but, Louis, I didn’t say “it is what it is,” I said it’s “a classic example of” that phrase. There is a slight difference.

    As for Joan Allen, fine actress that she is, I’m over defending her because, frankly, she almost always seems to be in dreck these days. That may have much to do with the movies and women “of a certain age.” This, however, is perhaps the nadir of her career moves.

    And I’m with Marc on Statham — to a degree. I can do without a lot of his movies, but The Bank Job is good. So was Snatch. Crank was amusing. OK, so this one’s crap and The Transporter pictures not much better. But really…I sat through Babylon A.D. tonight. After 90 minutes of Vin Diesel, Statham is looking mighty actorly.

  5. Sean Williams

    Actually, though, Anderson’s next project could be interesting. It purportedly centers around the Australian underground sport of marsupial-fighting.
    The studio has finally released a title for this project: Mortal Wombat.

    Tell me you saw that one coming!

  6. brebro

    He really does seem to be in every other action movie these days, but I can’t help it, I really like Jason Statham. If for no other reason than he brings much needed action hero cred to the heretofore uncelebrated male pattern baldness demographic. (Bruce Wilis can’t do it all by himself, you know.)

  7. Swans Should Speak

    I refuse to watch this movie.

    Over the last 30 years I have reveled in the B-grade ecstasy that David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone took part in. Anytime I was part of a “what’s the best cheesiest movie of all time” conversation I had the ace in the whole, Death Race 2000. The tooth adorned 70′s trans-am’s, the fast-forwarding of the film to make it look like they are going faster, the horrible lines and pseudo gut’s and blood. This will always be MY Death Race.

    Now I’ll have to clarify every time, no, not death race, DEATH RACE 2000! Geez, more work for me I suppose.

    Any suggestions for my next “what’s the cheesiest movie of all time” conversation?

  8. Swans Should Speak

    So, after reading I had to re-check out the original – for those who have 3 minutes this is a great Deathrace 2000 compilation with some fun rock/punk – it looks like all the kill scenes…I’m going to go buy it right now.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbKKCCmh7GU

    Oh, it wasn’t a trans-am with teeth, it was a corvette with teeth, my bad.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Any suggestions for my next “what’s the cheesiest movie of all time” conversation?

    Cheesiest movie or cheesiest enjoyable movie? I mean, Marc from Orbit condemned me — yes, condemned me — to sit through Deadly Prey last week. It was cheesy enough — definitely a higher Velveeta Quotient than Death Race 2000 — but I can’t say I actually enjoyed it.

  10. Tonberry

    The constant zoom in-zoom out, shaky close ups of the drivers when they’re racing gave me a head ache.

    I thought Ian McShane was pretty awesome though, he seemed to be having the most fun.

    Best part was the “WARNING” at the very end. I guess I shouldn’t mount gatling guns on my car.

    Dang.

  11. Vince Lugo

    I finally saw this and I must say I liked it quite a bit. It reminded me very much of the two films that made up Grindhouse a couple of years ago. I don’t gush over Paul Anderson like I do Tim Burton or Kevin Smith, but so far, I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I’ve seen. His films can’t be called artistic by any means, this is true, but for pure, popcorn-munching entertainment, he’s a good, reliable, underrated director.

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