General Release 2008
98 minutes approx
Jensen Ames -
Warden Hennessy -
Machine Gun Joe -
Directed by -
Paul WS Anderson
Written by -
Paul WS Anderson
In 2012, the US economy collapses and all hell breaks loose. The crime rate soars and prisons become privatised. The most commercialised of these, Terminal Island, invents Death Race in which inmates race armoured and armed vehicles around a wasteland circuit with only two aims, to get to the end first and to get there alive. The odds aren't high for either. Win five races and you win your freedom. Frankenstein has won four races, but is kind of dead. Enter Jensen Ames, hot shot driver once, but now a family man, or at least he was until his wife was murdered and he ended up in Terminal Island with an offer from the Warden, drive in the Death Race as Frankenstein, win and go free or see his daughter go to adoptive parents.
In 1975 DEATH RACE 2000 was made on a shoestring and so substituted pantomime and sly, subversive wit for all out action. It became a cult. In 2008, DEATH RACE is an identikit actioner starring the identikit action hero Jason Statham. More 'occasionally referencing' than 'based on' the original, Paul WS Anderson's remake jettisons any hint of subversion or wit for hi-octane thrills and spills. Cars are raced, cars are shot at (a lot) and cars are crashed. Anything else is pretty much surplus to requirements.
Which is not to say that DEATH RACE is bad, because it's certainly not that. What it is, though, is derivative. The 'sports star forced into the warden's game' is straight out of THE MEAN MACHINE. The reality TV 'cons fight to the death' set up is straight from THE RUNNING MAN. The destructo-tanker machine revealed halfway through is straight out of MAD MAX 2 (or THE ROAD WARRIOR if you're stateside). The script contains just about every cliche that you could imagine in such a story ('You can't kill me' is immediately followed by sudden death), but then again the script isn't what DEATH RACE is all about. Auto carnage is the order of the day.
The thing about heavily armoured vehicles racing around a track shooting the hell out of each other (and boy do they shoot a lot) is that it gets pretty repetitive pretty quickly. There are sequences where differences are introduced (the aforementioned destructo-tanker, Ames targeting his wife's murderer, the final race) that stave off boredom, but there are times when the cars are out there doing their thing when the mind begins to wander.
This isn't helped much by the fact that there isn't really anyone in the race to root for. Even the nominal hero Ames is a generally dislikeable man and Statham isn't the actor to make more of him than is there. As a master of action, Statham's the man of the moment and he can handle the hard nut better than anyone else around at the moment, but when a bit of humanity would have come in handy then it's just not there. Ian McShane is a loveable rogue called Coach and channels his TV Lovejoy persona through an ageing process to come up with a con with a heart of gold who is all cliche, but at least we can get on with. Female interest Natalie Martinez isn't on screen for long enough to do anything than look good in midriff-baring crop tops (which is fair enough since it is explained that the navigators are just there to look good to boost ratings), which means that it's ironically up to the villainess of the part, Joan Allen as the warden, to provide the spark of humanity. Whilst the others are all cyphers, at least she is someone that you can actually believe in, even if you can't like her much.
DEATH RACE destroys cars. For real. There is no (or at least very little) CGI involved here so that the cars look real and move like real vehicles with weight, momentum and substance. In making the film the old-fashioned way, Anderson has at least shown that car-crunching stunts are best done by human stunt teams and not computer pixels. If carmaggedon is what you're after then this and a six pack will do you quite nicely, but lovers of the original might just find themselves wishing for just a touch of the anarchic, subversive fun that came with the original Frankenstein, Machine Gun Joe et al.
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