Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
It ain't terrible, but it's no Road Warrior.
Watching Death Race, the latest loud, ultra-violent movie of the summer, I couldn’t help but be reminded of George Miller’s The Road Warrior. The second film in Miller’s trilogy which began with Mad Max and concluded with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, had its share of bloodshed and violence for sure but it was also visionary, depicting a desolate future where the inmates ran the asylum. Death Race doesn’t have such lofty goals, it gives us lots of death and tons of racing so I guess in that regard it certainly lives up to its title.
The year is the not so distant future of 2012, we are told that the economy has tanked (even worse than 2008) and people are glued to their television sets where they watch extremely violent car racing where just about everyone gets killed. Even though no one seems to have much money anymore, they are somehow able to spend about a hundred bucks a pop to watch the racing. The Michael Phelps of the racing circuit is named Frankenstein, and he gets about the same amount of coverage that Phelps gets, you know, until you want to throw up on your television set. When Frankenstein is killed, the woman in charge of the racing network who is also the warden at a maximum security prison (Joan Allen) decides that his legend must live on, and since Frankenstein always wore a mask, anyone can carry on that legend. Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, the man the warden frames for his own wife’s murder in order to get him into the prison and onto the racing circuit.
Ames was once a top notch racer who turned into a blue collar worker when he retired. When he arrives in prison, he is befriended by the coach (Ian McShane) the guy who runs the pit that Frankenstein raced in. We see that the entire racing circuit is run in the prison, and all of the drivers are prisoners. There is even a huge hangar where all of the various pits are located. The cars that are used to race are so hyped up with huge gun turrets, protective shields and even napalm that the dudes at Pimp my Ride would be jealous. The races are held on a track built around the prison and the entire operation is controlled by the warden. The track has built in traps and gadgets, such as ammo and shield detonators that the cars have to run over in order to activate. One wonders how big the prison’s budget could be. The races are divided into three segments which can be bought on pay per view separately or with a discount if you get all three together. The warden informs Ames that if he wins the big race he can go free and be re-united with his daughter.
Death Race is a fairly dumb film. When we see the initial commentary about the economy and the fact that the country has pretty much turned into a police state we hope that it will lead to some biting socio-economic statement that really doesn’t need to be set very far into the future at all. However the film quickly turns into a mind numbing affair where metal is twisted, bodies are destroyed (or is it the other way around?) and big bullets make even bigger holes in fancy racing cars. Unlike Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, director Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson, and is there really any way that could happen?) doesn’t have anything interesting to say here, and even the racing scenes have a mundane sameness that grows tiresome. It’s like watching a really pointless video game. The plot is basically one racing sequence followed by some meaningless filler followed by another racing sequence.
I guess there are reasons people will go see Death Race. There’s Jason Statham’s chiseled body, and some cool cars that destroy lots of things. The only real positive in the film is the performance by Joan Allen as the cruel warden. Allen seems to really enjoy playing a cold, heartless bitch, and she’s damn good at it. Other than her performance Death Race, which is a remake of the 1975 film Death Race 2000, is just another mind-numbing action flick. I’m glad summer is almost over.