Jensen is framed for the murder of his wife. When he is shipped to prison, he gets the opportunity to be involved in Death Race, a pay per view extravaganza where prisoners are given cars with armor and weapons and are sent out to win a race and kill as many of their competitors as possible. If he wins the race, he will be set free. If he loses, he dies.
Jason Statham is really pushing his luck as far as any respectability is concerned. In 2007, he accepted a role in a movie directed by the “world’s worst filmmaker” Uwe Boll for the masterpiece In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. While his fans might have hoped it would be a one-shot deal, he followed up in 2008 with a starring role in a movie directed by the man considered “Pubic Enemy Number One” to video game fans around the world, Paul W.S. Anderson.
Video game fans can breathe a sigh of relief because this time around, Anderson is setting his sights on a schlocky B-level movie from the seventies. The original film was about a cross-country race in the future year of 2000. Bonus points were given for killing bystanders in the race and one of the best parts was when a group of doctors at an old folk’s home led their geriatric patients into the street only for the antihero of the piece, Frankenstein, to swerve off road and take out the doctors instead. This was a satirical film that bears a resemblance to the classic Network, albeit in a lowbrow way. At the time, the thought of reality TV was a ridiculous concept, yet today it is very frighteningly real. However, there was much more under the surface, including a group seeking to overthrow the government and bring about change in the country.
It is said the best movies to remake are the ones that weren’t that great to begin with. Death Race 2000 qualifies as a movie that, despite its cult status, is nowhere near being a classical masterpiece. However, Anderson approaches the movie by leaving the satire by the curbside. Gone are the people who want to change the world. Instead of planning the race across the country, they limited it to a prison complex for budgetary reasons. This eliminated the opportunity for the fun scenes like the nursing home massacre. What he gave us in exchange is a Michael Bay type movie with lots of explosions and loud music.
That is not to say the movie is a failure. It is not a good script, but the action is great and it delivers a solid bang for the buck.
The script sucks. After an interesting prologue where Frankenstein (voiced by original actor David Carradine) is beaten in a race, we cut to present day and Jason Statham’s Jensen. Jensen is working at a steel mill on its last day to be open. According to the opening title narration, it is the future and unemployment is at an all time high. I’ll take a quick deter here to say how much I hate Anderson’s love affair with text based narration. He just seems to love telling us the story instead of showing it to start his films. Either way, Jensen goes to collect his last paycheck ($300 for 120 hours) and then we see the SWAT team race in and start beating up the employees standing outside the mill. Jensen gets the upper hand, beats up some cops and then goes home. No punishment. He just beats them up and then he goes home.
He has a wife and a baby. That ends about one minute later when someone breaks into his house, kills the wife and knocks Jensen out, planting the knife in his hand. We then cut to the prison where he gets the same horrible welcome committee you have seen in every prison movie. Jensen proves himself in the next two scenes by beating up various hardened prisoners. Then he is taken into the warden’s (Joan Allen) office and is told if he takes on the role of Frankenstein for the Death Race, and wins three races he will be released. He is shown a picture of his daughter and her foster parents to influence his decision.
The twists and turns of the movie can be seen from a mile away. There is the man who immediately becomes a nemesis for Jensen. There is of course the revelation of who really killed Jensen’s wife and why Jensen was framed to begin with. The plot is simpleminded but the action and actual race, which is all that matters in a picture like this, is awesome. If you turn off your brain and just watch the carnage once the races start you can find a lot in this picture to enjoy.
First, the acting on display is quite good. This is the type of role Jason Statham was born to play. It is very similar to his acting in Crank and Transporter and if the only movies he ever appeared in was big, dumb action movies I could live with that. A surprising positive in the movie was that of Joan Allen, who played a very fun bad guy as the sinister warden. Tyrese Gibson has also improved a great deal since he broke into acting and delivers a great performance as Frankenstein’s toughest rival. Finally, Ian McShane is another surprise in a role very unlike what you are used to seeing from him.
The stunts are awesome, with the battles between the cars and the inventive kills adding to the enjoyment. The direction is quite good in keeping the viewer on the edge of the seat the entire movie. The pacing is also solid as the almost two hour movie flies by. There are some directorial choices that are questionable, such as the introduction of the competitors of the race, which is shown as if it were the television show itself. The fact it was before the show actually aired makes it a poor choice that was only done to be showy. I believe you should never do something for the simple purpose of showing off. When he later chooses to use this technique during the race it works, but using it early on was overkill.
There are many ups and downs in this picture. If you hated Paul W.S. Anderson before this movie, you will find nothing in this one that should interest you. However, if you are the type of fan who finds the fun in the films of the lesser skilled Paul Anderson, this movie has some hidden gems for your enjoyment. For a dumb, giant bubble gun action movie, I feel it works better than the bigger budget 2007 blockbuster Eagle Eye. There is nothing in this movie that was ever meant to take seriously. It is just a fun movie with lots of explosions and a few decapitations for the hell of it.
Right out of the box, the first option you get the choice of watch the movie in either the theatrical or unrated version. It states some DVD players may have difficulty with the unrated version but I have no idea what those problems might be.
Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race (19:43) – Paul W.S. Anderson’s enthusiasm is contagious. He really seems excited about the movies he is making and has a great love for the source material. Say what you will about his ineptitude, but the guy really wants to pay tribute to his influences. I also find, through all the features I have watched involving his films (AvP and Event Horizon), Anderson has a brilliant eye for storyboards and his artwork is beautiful. The feature is short and kind of lacks much more than just talking heads saying how great everyone else was.
Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts (07:50) – This looks at the stunts involved and also includes Jason Statham saying this is the type of movie he wants to see in theaters. That explains his love for Transporter and Crank films and why he might be the reincarnation of the eighties action star. That is a good thing.
Feature Commentary with Director Paul W.S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt – Interesting trivia is that Roger Corman bought the rights to Anderson’s first film, Shopping, in 1994 and the two planned this remake at that time. Anderson talks most in this track and seems to enjoy namedropping his influences. That is not always a good thing since his movies never, ever match up to his favorites.