Death Race really overcomes some serious obstacles to get a solid “7” rating from me. The director is all flash and little substance Paul W Anderson (of Event Horizon fame and Resident Evil 4 infamy), it is a remake of a 70s low budget exploitation film (remember Rollerball?) and perhaps most troubling is the plot which is essentially “mean guys race cars”. Now I’m not worried about Oscar potential but that hardly even sounds like a 5 / 10 let alone something with actual entertainment value.
It is 2012 and the global economy has collapsed (they were a bit late on that one! But I’d rather a dystopian violent 2012 than a “everyone learn to tread water REAL quick film like “2012”), prisons have been privatized and are now run for profit, with prisoners being used as test dummies in violent contests to be filmed and sold on pay-per-view.
Jason Statham is Jensen Ames, a hard workin’, hard on his luck hard-man who loves his family – then has them taken from him in brutal fashion and is framed for the crime.
Upon arriving in prison he is almost immediately conscripted to take the place of famed race driver “Frankenstein”, a guy who is responsible for many deaths and always wears a full face mask, enabling Ames to take his place without anyone knowing. Unfortunately the real Frankie has died thanks to injuries suffered in the most recent race, but as he was so popular with audiences that such a switcheroo seems the only option.
With the promise of a release with full pardon if “New Frankenstein” can win just one more series of races versus the prospect of a long painful life in prison – or a quick death in prison – Ames reluctantly accepts the female Warden’s offer.
Now the tenuous premise has been set up let’s not bother with what happens next, after all it should be fairly obvious that Ames will be targeted, doublecrossed and fucked over before even having the chance to triumph.
Let’s deal with the obvious clichés:
Ames is teamed with a pit crew of guys who know his true identity and are sworn to secrecy. There is the meek but smart one, the older wise one, the well meaning but naïve one and the hip carefree one. His secret identity somehow never comes out.
Ames’s adversaries are a hodgepodge of tough guys and shady types with “cool & dangerous” sounding names, violent pasts and various ethnicities.
The warden is the real bad guy (gal here though), manipulating the races and racers to maximize ratings and make sure no-one can truly win. It is inevitable that they will come to blows at one point.
Now the things that made no sense whatsoever:
At the start of the first race Ames is told that his windows are mirrored so he doesn’t have to wear his mask while racing, yet the racers gesture and taunt each other through the film, obviously fully able to see each other.
Everyone swears and says clever things to each other throughout the race even though they can’t hear each other.
Remember the mirrored windows? Each driver is assigned a navigator from a nearby women’s prison. The navigator’s role seems to be little more that sit still and say obvious stuff like “there’s a guy behind us”. In reality the chicks are there for one reason and one reason only, the super slo-mo sequence as they disembark from the bus wearing tank tops and sidle sinuously towards the camera in one epic lineup of Victoria’s Secret model criminals. The film suggests they are there for ratings, but the telecast doesn’t start until after they are in the car and if the windows really weren’t see-through no-one could see them anyway.
Once the race is underway Ames’ navigator (whose name I can’t recall but she was insanely hot) gives him the lowdown on the race rules. All well and good but perhaps easier if Ames was told the rules in the days prior to the actual race rather than on the fly with ruff n tuff guys shooting at him?
The race is run in three stages, the first two simply to knock out also-rans – and show big crashes and flashy explosions – so why “race” in the first two legs and risk death? Surely it would be easier to cruise Miss Daisy style and enjoy the scenery?
Anyway after all that Death Race is good as disposable trashy fun, lousy as a coherent piece of cinematic story telling, but who in their right mind goes into a move called Death Race for the storytelling and narrative? So with that in mind I must give it points for doing what it sets out to achieve. The explosions and deaths are suitably violent and well choreographed, the dialogue inane, tough and over the top ridiculous, and the chicks… that one pointless scene stays with me.
If only they had post race group showers, Death Race might then have been truly Great, for now it will have to settle for big dumb entertainment. Like Jessica Simpson during her fat phase, you watch and enjoy, but you probably don’t brag about it much.
Final Rating – 7 / 10. This was never destined for Oscar buzz but it sets the bar low and clears it without logic or in truth much effort, but a lazy success is better than a lazy failure.