Death Race Redux
When Films Deliver What They Promise

The year is 2012, and the American economy has finally fallen apart, leaving hordes of citizens out of work and struggling to survive. In an effort to tame the seething hordes, the government turns to a historical mainstay, reintroducing the gladiator era with cage fights to the death between prisoners from some of the nastiest jails in the country. When the appeal wears off, corporate media turns things up a notch, creating the “death race”—which pits prisoners against one another in heavily armed and armored vehicles on an isolated race track in the middle of the ocean.

Action-favorite Jason Statham plays the scowling angst-filled Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife and sent to a maximum-security prison under the watch of twisted Prison Warden Hennessey. Played by a very sinister Joan Allen, Hennessey offers to release Ames in exchange for his competition in the Death Race under the guise of masked former Death Race-legend “Frankenstein.”

Jason Statham as Ames in Death RaceLike its predecessor, the 1975 Death Race 2000, Death Race is not art. It doesn’t have a deep plot, and it’s not going to win any awards for acting talent; but it doesn’t promise any of that either. It promises cars with machine guns mounted on top, massive explosions, and the squishy wet consequences of speeding metal and human organs.

Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, a veteran of film’s guilty action-movie pleasures, this version is really just about as honest any as any film gets these days. Sure, the twists are predictable, the acting is a little shaky with more than its fair share of crappy one-liners (and plenty of totally classic ones); but you don’t care, right? You came to see cars with machine guns welded to their hoods. In this, Death Race proves itself to be one of the most unapologetic and just plain fun action films of the last several years.

Part of this is Anderson’s firm commitment to old-school special effects. Keep in mind that these cars aren’t made out of CGI; every vehicle you see was actually filmed in motion with a real camera. Ten years ago, this might not have been much of a selling point, but the industry standard has changed. Why waste all the time and effort on building massive and expensive rigs when you can just have a team of computer geeks do the same in less time and less money? “Because,” Death Race answers, “it’s not the same.” 

Opening almost literally with a bang, Death Race doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time setting up the backstory, simply getting you right to the good stuff. The action is visceral and brutal whether the cars are on the track or not. When he’s not behind the wheel, Statham proves that he hasn’t lost the action-hero touch, taking his revenge into his own painfully capable hands. The cars themselves are recognizable perversions of common vehicles, such as Frankenstein’s “Monster,” the steel-sheathed Mustang covered in layers of solid metal and packing twin Gatling guns mounted on the hood. As you can expect, the course of the film showcases these heavy weapons to great and explosive effect.

There are a few intensely cringe-worthy moments where the movie tries to emphasize the “thug factor,” utilizing horribly out-of-place hip hop and slow-motion scowling, but even that is forgivable as soon as the cars begin to lurch forward on the starting line.

At the screening I attended, I looked around as the engines swelled to a roar. The audience’s anticipation was thick enough to choke on, erupting in cries of primal glee as the brakes let off and the screen filled with smoke. As the metal started to fly, I felt my face stretch further as the permanent smile on my face was repeated throughout the rest of the audience. No, it’s definitely not The Dark Knight, but its fun.

If the audience at the screening I attended is any indicator, there’s definitely a place for this film. It’s not the original, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no comparison here, past the initial concept of cars killing things. Fans of the first film looking for the satirical Second Coming of David Carradine are going to be disappointed. And yet, if you let the expectation of a true sequel get in your way, then you’re missing what could be a breath of fresh air in a computer graphic-heavy industry.

For the rest of us? If you’re thinking about seeing Death Race, then you’re probably not too interested in the storyline or its classic roots anyways. Grab yourself a group of rowdy friends and an extra-large popcorn and let your brain take a load off.

Also be sure to read Michael Brunk’s review of Death Race.