Kevin's Review: Death Race - High-Revving, Hard-Hitting Fun
by Kevin Powers
August 21, 2008
As pointed and uncomplicated as its title, Death Race is a pure sadistic smash-em-up that provides some of the most explosive, gratuitous fun at the box office this summer. Based on the 1975 original, Death Race 2000, Paul W. S. Anderson's take on the material isn't a remake, but a solid update to the dystopian tale of vehicular carnage and the public's devolution into violent voyeurism. In Death Race, private companies now run the prisons and make money off gladiator-like events, pitting prisoners against each other to battle until death, all the while streaming the mayhem to the masses. While obviously not real, we as viewers could be considered part of the blood-thirsty audience cheering for destruction. And cheer we do.
Movie-driver Jason Statham headlines the production as ex-con Jensen Ames, a humble husband and father to an infant daughter. Ames' life erupts in destruction when he is framed for murdering his wife, sending him to the dead-end Terminal Island prison. In addition to being a mile out in the water, the prison's claim to fame is its live-broadcast Death Race, which is a three-round competition wherein inmates drive souped-up cars and pretty much just try to kill each other. The winner of five races gets his freedom. Taking a cue directly from the 1975 original, the lead driver and fan favorite is Frankenstein, purportedly a driver so badly mangled from accidents prior that he wears a Jason-esque mask.
The grey and grit that makes up the Terminal Island environment is a solid accomplishment by writer-director Anderson. Despite a healthy, albeit slightly rote, background in action, violence and sci-fi having helmed the Resident Evil series and the original Aliens vs Predator, Anderson brings a freshness and surprisingly seasoned sensibility to big action that will certainly catch you off guard. The choreography of the dizzying chase sequences and myriad explosions is reminiscent of the work of the king of blockbuster blow-em-ups, Michael Bay. Thankfully, Anderson's taste leans more toward the dark and sinister - a style that revs and roars in Death Race.
Shortly after Statham's character settles into the prison (following the obligatory initiation fights and arguments over territory), he's approached by the warden - a porcelain cougar named Hennessey (Joan Allen). Hennessey, knowing Ames' background as a race car driver, wants him to participate in the Death Race. While Allen partly channels her stoic role as CIA leader Pamela Landy from the Bourne series, she ups the bitch quotient to an impressive degree. Hennessey is one of the most fun characters of Death Race, largely because she is as twisted as all of the wrenched metal that litters Terminal Island. Supporting characters that also make the film a bit more than just sound and fury include seasoned actor Ian McShane as Statham's pit boss and Tyrese Gibson as Frankenstein's number one opponent, Machine Gun Joe.
To be sure, the film runs out of gas when trying to reach any level of drama or story, and it positively dies when wrapping things up. But who cares? An armored 800+ horsepower Mustang with double gatling guns mounted on the hood far overshadows any need for sympathy we might feel for the characters. And when one of those characters goes out in a bloody blaze, the story is the last thing we're thinking about. For once, I totally agree with a director's boasting of a film. Anderson recently said, "I firmly believe [Death Race] is the best, most spectacular car action I've ever seen in a film." I think you might agree. A straight crimson shot into bedlam, Death Race is a film for which you're either going to call "shotgun!" or let pass you by.