Death Race (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Death Race Poster

Whether by coincidence or design, the three week period from August 20 through September 10 has been dominated over the last five years by Jason Statham. In 2004, there was Cellular. In 2005, there was Transporter 2. The 2006 entry was Crank, followed by War in 2007. Now, for 2008, Statham has Death Race, which delivers pretty much what one might expect from a movie of that name: cars and carnage. Statham's films never promise to be something they're not or offer something they don't provide. Death Race is not an exception. Paul W.S. Anderson's (the Alien vs. Predator guy) creation is weak when it comes to things like plot, character, and acting, but it's very good at provoking visceral reactions, and that's largely what the picture's audience will be in multiplexes for.

It's a little surprising to find an actress of Joan Allen's stature in an exploitation flick like this. For Statham, this is his bread-and-butter, but Allen usually goes for more upscale fare. One can only assume that she enjoyed playing the bitch in The Bourne Supremacy/ The Bourne Ultimatum and wanted a chance to refine her villainess skills. Here, she's got the ice queen personality down to a "T": cool, regal, and ready to slip in the knife and twist it for all it's worth. She's a badass in skirt and heels - the kind of woman viewers love to hate. Her profane diatribe has to be heard to be believed.

The premise, borrowed liberally from the 1975 Roger Corman movie, Death Race 2000, is simple. The year is 2012 and gladiatorial sports are all the rage on-line. The prisoners of Terminal Island, lorded over by Warden Hennessey (Allen) participate in the Death Race, where the winner takes a step toward freedom (win five races to earn a Get Out of Jail Free card) and the losers escape in a body bag (if there's enough left of them to zip up). The Death Race's most famous participant, Frankenstein, has met an untimely end at the hands of Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), but that doesn't stop Hennessy from bringing back the beloved Frank for another race. To that end, she frames Jensen Ames (Statham), a former professional racer, for the murder of his wife and makes him an offer he can't refuse: play the part of Frank, win the Death Race, and go free. Unfortunately, Jensen finds out Hennessey was behind his wife's death and revenge becomes a more important priority for him than freedom. His allies include Case (Natalie Martinez), his smokin' hot "navigator," and Coach (Ian McShane), the leader of his pit crew.

As one would expect from a long race, there are plenty of mini-climaxes as Jensen faces off and defeats his opponents. Death Race's actual climax is a little different than what one might expect from the beginning of the movie, although it is telegraphed surprisingly early. The ending is perfunctory and doesn't offer the level of "hands on" satisfaction that some might desire. While the epilogue certainly wraps things up, it does a better job of raising questions than answering them. Then again, there's little about Death Race's screenplay that even the most charitable viewer would label as "airtight." Logic was not one of the characteristics Anderson worried about when assembling this movie.

This is The Fast and the Furious or Speed Racer on steroids, although it is more about violence and gore than cars. None of the vehicles are slick and sleek; they're armed and armored tanks, with jets that spew smoke, oil, and napalm, and fully operational machine guns mounted on hoods and roofs. The race course is modeled after a video game. As the drivers buzz around the track, smashing into other cars, there are "power-ups" to hit. The first car to glide over these power-ups can have its weapons activated or cause a deadly obstacle to spring up in the middle of the road in front of an opponent.

Death Race makes a few weak attempts at satire, emphasizing how bloodthirsty the human race is, paying $99 a round to watch human beings get blown up and shredded. It's not a unique idea, having provided the backstory for more than one action movie (the most famous of which may be Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man). Heavy-handed satirical elements represent nothing more than frosting on the bloodsoaked, action-packed cake, however. This movie is about mayhem on wheels, tough guys viewers can root for, and villains whose comeuppances audiences crave. That's what Death Race is all about and, for what it is, it does a solid job.

Death Race (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1