The best thing I can say about Death Race is that it isn’t total garbage, the sort of thing usually reserved for late August. Perhaps the total garbage won’t hit us until September. But wait, the Coen Brothers’ movie Burn After Reading is coming out on September 12! Hey, maybe we’ll be spared the usual dumping ground cinema of late August-early September after all. Wouldn’t that be nice?
If Death Race is as bad as it gets this summer, we’re going to be OK. With Jesus as my witness … we’re going to be OK.
This isn’t really a remake of Roger Corman’s sick and kind of lousy, cult film Death Race 2000. The original had David Carradine as a car race champion named Frankenstein participating in a cross-country race where he could rack up points by running over old ladies. The premise was funny in a totally warped sort of way, but the execution was quite shitty. So, let it be known that I don’t consider the original sacred ground, and I’m ready for a new take.
Unfortunately, director Paul W.S. Anderson (maker of the lousy Alien vs. Predator and the first Resident Evil) doesn’t take the premise and come up with some dark and twisted fun. Instead, he goes for an action-thriller prison drama that more or less neuters the sick premise. His film is essentially Gone in Sixty Seconds meets The Shawshank Redemption, and it doesn’t really work.
Jason Statham, a.k.a. The Man Studios Call For the Job When Bruce Willis Thinks the Script Sucks, steps into the role of Frankenstein … well, sort of. He actually plays Jensen Ames, a former racecar driver who is accused of killing his wife and sentenced to life on Terminal Island. The warden, a cool cucumber named Hennessey (Joan Allen) conducts the Death Race, an Internet sensation where prisoners race and kill each other for glory and possible freedom.
The reigning champion, Frankenstein, has died, but Hennessey doesn’t want the world to know. Instead, she wants Jensen to put on his mask and carry on the legend. Because he wants to see his baby daughter again, he begrudgingly accepts the deal and finds himself racing for his life against the likes of Grimm (Robert LaSardo) and Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson in a role once played by Sylvester Stallone).
The race scenes are tolerable, standard sequences with lots of engines going vroom-vroom, lots of things blowing up, and the occasional sucker getting run over or ejected from a car. There are multiple races, and they all start to just blend together after awhile, with nothing all that eventful happening. For reasons not really explained, Hennessey has women from another correctional facility bused in to act as navigators for the racers. I guess it’s for sex appeal, but that’s stupid because the racers are obscured by their heavily armored cars.
Statham delivers his usual, growling sort of performance. It’s interchangeable with just about anything else he’s ever done in a movie. Gibson manages to make Machine Gun Joe—probably the best thing about the Corman version—an intolerable bore. Allen, a favorite actress of mine, has no business in mediocrity such as this. She’s done action before (the excellent Face Off), but this time out, her talents are wasted.
The Death Race remake project has been kicking around for years, with Tom Cruise attached at one time to play Frankenstein. Now, a film with Tom Cruise racing across America, running over people for points, and employing his maniacal Oprah couch laugh would’ve been awesome. Instead, we get a run-of-the-mill fast car movie that’s too afraid to be twisted. It feels like a thousand other movies before it. It needed the sick touch of a Sam Raimi or Eli Roth instead of the slick-yet-bland workings of P.W. Anderson.