Written and Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez
Rated: R for strong violence and language.
Parental Notes: This is a big, bad, nasty action movie, and not suitable for youngsters. Teens will probably dig it if they like mindless violence, but the R rating is well-deserved.
“Death Race” opens with one of those terse written explanations you might expect on the first page of a video game manual — a backstory which serves as a flimsy excuse for the action you’re about to see. The story for “Death Race” tells us that it’s 2012 and prisons are run by private corporations for profit. The most profitable prison is Terminal Island, which produces pay-per-view races between the prisoners in armored and be-weaponed cars. Win five races and you get your release papers — but of course nobody has ever won that many races. Most folks just die, and millions of viewers tune in to watch them do so.
Our hero is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former race car driver who was framed for his wife’s murder. Evil Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) wants him to take the place of a recently-deceased driver named Frankenstein — she can’t let word slip that the incredibly popular driver is dead or she’ll lose viewers. Fortunately, Frankenstein wore a mask, so all Ames has to do is not talk to anyone and drive well. The plan is for Ames to win as Frank and get his release that way, enabling him to go look after his now-motherless baby daughter. Ames joins Frank’s team — Coach (Ian McShane), a grizzled old-timer with a few tricks up his sleeve; Lists (Frederick Koehler), a nervous young fellow who knows all there is to know about cars; Gunner (Jacob Vargas), a grease monkey who’s seen it all; and Case (Natalie Martinez), who was Frank’s navigator in the race that killed him.
The race takes place in three stages, which strongly resemble levels in a video game. There’s the first level, where we learn the rules and watch as Ames gets the hang of the car. The drivers and their busty female navigators (bussed in from a women’s prison, since scantily-dressed bad girls are good for ratings) try to survive their laps and take out as many of the other drivers as they can. In the second level, Hennessey has a trick up her sleeve to make things harder for the surviving drivers and Ames must ally himself with Frankenstein’s arch-rival, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) in order to survive. In the third level, the game — er, movie — pulls out all the stops.
The dialog-heavy scenes between the racing sequences feel a lot like cut scenes — those pre-scripted little movies in video games that help move the plot along. They’re workmanlike and not terribly impassioned. But that’s just fine — viewers aren’t going to buy tickets for “Death Race” in hopes of thrilling character development, but to see racing and death. The movie provides both in graphic splendor.
The racing sequences are long, mind-boggling stretches of inspired lunacy. The cars have weapons ranging from machine guns to napalm, and defensive mechanisms like smoke-plumes and heavy armor which can be sent tumbling into other vehicles. There are booby-traps on the track which drivers can trick other cars into setting off. We get to see cars slamming into spiked walls, crushed against each other in collisions, blown up by grenades, and so on. The drivers are gouged, scraped, set on fire, and other assorted horrible things. And since this is an R-rated movie, we get to see most of it in detail.
“Death Race” has no pretension or aspirations to brilliance — it is a straightforward action movie which delivers automotive destruction and delivers in spades. If you’re looking for interesting thematic elements, complex characters, or much in the way of a plot, you will be out of luck. But if all you’re looking for is a fun way to kill a couple hours while watching things blow up, “Death Race” is your movie.