– Summary –
Director : Paul W S Anderson
Cast : Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez.
Length : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: When he is framed for his wife’s murder, and sent to a notorious island prison, Jensen Ames is blackmailed into driving in the famed Death Race, an internet streamed fight to the death between prisoners seeking the 5 wins required to gain their freedom. Ames must battle not only his fellow drivers, but the evil prison Warden who wants to keep him in jail for ratings, or kill him if he succeeds in winning.
Review : Style over substance somehow saves the day. Death Race is exciting, funny and violent: all the key ingredients in an instant beer-and-pizza-night classic. Drive baby, drive.
Bombastic, frenetic and completely insane remake of Roger Corman’s 70’s cult classic, Death Race is possibly one of the stupidest films to come along in a long time, and also one of the most enjoyably entertaining. The plot is the most threadbare of any you’ll see in film these days, a simple premise that’s amped up to 11 by schlock director Anderson, who gave us such cinematic gems as Event Horizon and Alien vs Predator. It’s gory, glorifying driving violence, the kind of film you’d get if you crossed The Fast & The Furious with Mad Max. In fact, it’s probably closer to Mad Max. Blood, flame, body parts and metal fly across the screen in this unholy mix of carnage and cars.
Jason Statham stars as the same character he’s played in every film he’s ever been in, the hard-ass good guy who beats people senseless to achieve his goals, ripped abs flexing and dropping one liners faster than Arnie at a Terminator convention. He plays Jensen Ames, a wrongly convicted man sent to the Terminal Island prison facility to serve his sentence. Apparently, in the future, prisoners will be used as fodder for Internet audiences, as the privatisation of correctional facilites facilitates a more commercial operation to take place: the prison’s nasty warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen, looking more like an Ice Queen than a human) has devised a car racing competition for the prisoners in a pay-per-view style event, to fill the coffers of the prison. The competition involves several prisoners racing custom built vehicles around a prison racetrack, activating various defensive and offensive weaponry on the vehicles as they go. The title of “Death Race” indicates that this isn’t no casual jaunt through the dark and dingy areas of Terminal Island; this is a legitimate race to the death. Drivers, and their female navigators, die in various violent and horrific ways, all for the unseen web audience to gloat over. It’s a business, and a successful one at that.
The dangling carrot for Ames is the fact that if a driver wins five races, he obtains his freedom. To date, however, nobody has ever won five races, with the nearest driver, the recently injured masked prisoner known as Frankenstein having already won four. Frankenstein remains the competitions most popular driver, and Hennessey wants to replace him with Ames, albeit using the same disguise and moniker. Ames agrees, hoping to get out of prison and return to his now abandoned daughter (his wife was killed by an intruder into their home, and Ames was set up to take the fall) after only one race. Each of the drivers is given a female navigator from a womans prison in the next county, and Frankensteins was Case (Natalie Martinez), a fellow prisoner who is determined to win her freedom. With the audience unaware that Jensen Ames is now the new Frankenstein, Hennessey tries to ensure that the character will never win his fifth and final race, because her ratings (and financial gain) are too much to lose.
To be honest, the plot doesn’t really matter all that much, since the majority of the films running time is taken up with the race itself, an event in three stages with increasingly less participants. Anderson knows what his audience want: the driving and the stunts, all given to us in abundance, with a somewhat gleeful edge that pushes this film into dangerously entertaining territory. It’s lowbrow humour and graphic violence of the highest order, a cacophonous plethora of explosions and gunfire, coupled with a very bravado-ridden script filled with one-liners, Death Race isn’t high on intellectualism. There’s a sliver of emotion and dramatic depth, with Statham glowering his way through the death of his wife and subsequent imprisonment, but the film doesn’t rely on Statham’s acting to generate it’s thrills.
Co-starring in the film are Tyrese Gibson, as Frankenstiens arch enemy and fellow prisoner Machine Gun Joe, and Ian McShane as Coach, the pit boss who helps Ames keep his car in a drivable condition. Neither actor gets to do much apart from chew the scenery as this film progresses, however, it’s hardly a problem that lowers the quality of the film. Generally, the characterisation in Death Race is absolutely middle-of-the-road, a place Stathams films generally sit anyway. No, where this film really kills it is in the racing sequences.
Anderson has crafted some of the most high octane and energetic racing sequences seen on film in recent years. I suspect the majority of this has to do with actually filming real cars in action, as opposed to the increasingly digital stupidity of the Fast & The Furious franchise (especially Tokyo Drift). Death Race’s racing sequences are bloody, violent and exciting, delivering just what you’d expect for a film like this. A modified truck-trailer called Dreadnaught is unleashed upon the racers in Stage 2, a heavily armoured, weaponised death machine that Hennessey has developed over months of construction. This additional obstacle for the racers is insane to watch.
People who claim Death Race is a low point in cinema have completely missed the point. Yes, its a stupid film, after all, it’s so completely unbelievable as to be insane. By design. Not by accident. Anderson’s clever enough to recognise the fact that this film will only ever appeal to hard-core males with a fetish for bodily mutilation and heavy metal music, and so he delivers it to the best of his ability. Death Race is not a highbrow film for those with classy tastes. It’s grungy, gritty, violent carnage on a grand scale; a vendetta film that entertains in the way it was meant to.