Racing Movie Month: "Death Race" Review

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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Rating: R
Length: 105 minutes   
Release Date: August 22, 2008
Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Genre: Action / Sci-Fi / Thriller

"Death Race" is an action-packed remake of the 1975 film "Death Race 2000." Both films are based off the original short story "The Racer" by Ib Melchior. This version stars Jason Statham as a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife in an apocalyptic version of the year 2012. The world economy has collapsed, and private prisons are a profitable enterprise. Joan Allen plays an evil warden who runs a pay-per-view broadcast called the "Death Race," where inmates race and combat one another for a chance at winning their freedom. Statham's character is brought to Allen's prison, where he must assume the identity of a recently deceased racer to try to win back his freedom and clear his name. The film was written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, and also stars Tyrese Gibson.

Fans of Jason Statham know what to expect of him in films, and he delivers in this fast-paced and violent movie. His character of Jenson Ames is a ""man's man,"" while also maintaining a tenderness and moral compass in an environment where he is surrounded by savages. The real star of the film is the racing sequences, shot with enough grit and frenetic energy to give them the appearance of a live-action video game. The cars are equipped with weapons and defensive devices, some of which are gloriously over-the-top. Anderson shoots the movie much like an 80's throwback. At times, it feels like a kindred spirit of the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick ""The Running Man.""

Subtlety is not the movie's strong point, nor is it intended to be. The dialogue is often stilted and cliché-ridden, and the actions scenes are loud, bloody and bombastic. Joan Allen is deliciously evil as the warden Hennessey. Statham is charismatic and macho as the hero Ames. Spiro Razatos deserves a lot of credit as the second-unit director, as he was responsible for much of the racing footage. The film lives and dies off of the excitement of these conflicts, and they occur frequently throughout the film. Razatos does Anderson a great service by making them fast and exciting, while still allowing the audience to follow what's happening. Many action films rely on quick cuts, shaky cameras and rapid editing to provide excitement. ""Death Race"" has some of this, but the audience is able to follow the action and understand it without getting dizzy.

It wouldn't be a Jason Statham movie without some fisticuffs as well. Placing Ames in a prison population provides multiple opportunities for fight sequences against other inmates and corrupt guards, and Statham delivers with his usual charisma and skill.

Ames's main adversary on the track and in the prison is Machine Gun Joe, played capably by Tyrese Gibson. Joe has a serious vendetta against legendary driver Frankenstein, and Ames becomes Joe's target when he takes over the Frankenstein moniker at Hennessey's request. The original Frankenstein, played in a cameo by David Carradine, died under mysterious circumstances. As Ames and Joe duke it out on the track, Ames also starts to piece together what really happened to his predecessor, and how the same fate could await him.

There isn't much plot to speak of in ""Death Race,"" and what is there is used primarily to set up the action sequences. The ultimate reveal of Frankenstein's fate and Hennessey's larger plan are not really surprising, but they are used to set up one final race/battle that serves as a fun payoff. To say more would spoil one of the film's few surprises, but Ames has a plan of his own that turns the tables on those who are conspiring against him.

Paul Haslinger's score nicely compliments the metal-on-metal mayhem, while also accentuating the tension in the film's few quieter moments. Scott Kevan's cinematography is very washed-out and stylized, making everything look bleak and gray. The lighting provides an atmosphere that compliments both the brutality of the prison and the hopelessness of Ames's situation.

"Death Race" doesn't have anything new or original about it. Nearly everything in it has been done extensively in other action or science fiction films. However, what it does, it does very well. Fans of car chases, racing sequences and bloody mayhem are likely to enjoy what "Death Race" has to offer. The strong cast helps buoys what is sometimes a lackluster script, and the performances combined with impressive camera work lend real gravitas to the proceedings. The combination of action, science-fiction and suspense makes for a fun ride for any fans of those genres. The film is now available on DVD, and there is also an extended edition that is unrated and includes additional footage that had originally been cut from the theatrical release.

Rating: 3 out of 5