Review: ‘Death Race’ (2008)

How can you not like Jason Statham driving fast and kicking butt? Okay, yeah, then there’s the rest of the movie…

Welcome to the future, just a few years from now. After the complete collapse of the American economy, people turn to their televisions sets as their sole source of relief. The biggest show to watch is the exclusive pay-per-view “Death Race,” where convicts in armored vehicles play a deadly live-action survival game against one another. As the top driver, Frankenstein, nears enough wins to purchase his freedom, an unemployed husband, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), with a known history of race car driving suddenly finds himself accused of killing his family and sentenced to the same prison where the race is held. It isn’t hard for Jensen to piece together what’s happened, but can he do anything to stop Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) before he becomes just another statistic?

Based on the 1973 film of almost the same name, Paul W.S. Anderson takes over both writing and directorial duties. Instead of a cross-country race where running down unaware pedestrians are worth extra points, Anderson restricts his remake to a prison complex and video game-like elements such as running over targets to enable weapons, escapes routes, and other features. Of course, the games are rigged to create the most compelling show possible, and no one cares since the players are convicted violent crime offenders. While the premise creates plenty of entertaining opportunities for violence and destruction, how much better could this have been as a true “cannonball run” coast-to-coast with fans trying to get into the action as the racers pass their home town?

The film’s plot holds no secrets that everything is under control of Joan Allen’s character, taking a step down from her role in the Bourne films to become the wicked witch of pa-per-view. Ian McShane as the mentoring Coach lends a level head and an entertainingly evil sense of humor regarding the entire spectacle. Finally, Natalie Martinez provides much-needed eye candy as Statham reluctant co-pilot (on loan from the women’s prison down the road). As drivers talk crap about one another both on and off the track, it isn’t hard to believe that such a thing could actually happen.

Hurting the overall production is a rushed ending that was fairly obvious to begin with. Does it really matter, though, since what audiences are paying tickets for is the death and destruction inherit to each leg of the race? The prison idea was clever for a start, but any sequel should mirror the original film, a no-holds-barred race across a failed economic wasteland while fans both on and off the track try to get in on and profit from the action. “Car Wars” meet Mad Max? Even if it doesn’t happen as a sequel, how much longer will it be before the real thing happens, hmm?

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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