Pros: This movie give good mayhem. It explodes pretty.
Cons: The plot is fecally derived retreaded and aimed directly at the lowest common denominator.
Death Race (2008) Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson
Jensen Ames: So what are you in for?
Case: They say I killed a cop.
Jensen Ames: Did you do it?
Jensen Ames: Bad cop?
Case: Good cop... lousy husband.
Death Race is an Explosion Noir Epic, a remake of Roger Corman's 1975 Schlock Classic. Set in the very near future (2012) the economy has collapsed (believable) and the prison system is strictly a for profit enterprise, pitting inmates against each other first in cage matches for pay for view, and later, the Death Race franchise was born.
Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a steelworker, freshly laid off, whose wife is killed by a mysterious masked man who gasses him, and frames him for the job. The next thing he knows, he is in prison, and Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) is having a few choice words with him.
It seems the current champion of Death Race is called Frankenstein (several car wrecks earned him the name). He has four wins, at five he goes free. Ames is a race car driver. He will wear the mask, and pretend to be Frankenstein and win the last race, and his freedom. Were you paying attention? Good. You can stop now. The rest is just an excuse for the race scenes.
There is a colourful array of psychopathic killers in murder mobiles, but the only two that you need to worry about are Machine Gun Joe Mason (Tyrese Gibson), and Pachenko (Max Ryan). Pachenko and Jensen might have history....
On Jensen's side are Gunner (Jacob Vargas), Lists (Frederick Koehler), and leading the team of grease monkeys, Coach (Ian McShane). Lastly, for the actual race, navigators are brought in from the women's penitentiary. Hot chicks and hot cars; what a classic combination. Ames' navigator or rather Frankenstein's is Elizabeth Case (Natalie Martinez).
Now, if as Jensen suspects, Warden Hennessey actually had him brought to prison to play Frankenstein, what are the chances she is really going to let him loose?
There is a word in the movie industry; toyenetic. It means a concept added to the movie with the thought of it's merchandising possibilities. The "Tumbler" Batmobile from Batman Returns is a prime example. It has RC vehicle written all over it.
This movie is Videogamenetic. Each car has to run over a lit marker in order to arm their weapons and defenses. These are not turned on until the second lap. There are also booby traps that with clever driving can be used to take out other drivers. Each car has defenses like smoke screens, oil slicks, and napalm that can be used once. ("Deploy the Blue Turtle Shell!") Doesn't that scream video game?
The characters are also as broadly drawn. Coach is actually paroled, but did not leave because he was institutionalized. Lists is the ultimate fan boy; what was his crime, boring someone to death at a stock car convention? Machine Gun Joe is one very angry black homo. They are all stereotypes.
That doesn't mean they can't give some fine performances. Jason Statham of course plays Jason Statham. That's a good thing, since he does it so well. Ian McShane is so tough and smooth at the same time as the unflappable Coach. And Joan Allen delivers her performance with an icy venom that sends shivers down the spine. I hope she is saving some of it for the chat with her agent.
The pyrotechnics are brilliant. And the driving is great. And the pacing does not slow down even for the turns. But this movie has very little more than rampant violence and the need for speed. It is supposed to be an excoriation of gladiatorial mentalities, bread and circuses, but what is it besides the exact thing that it holds up as evil; the glorification of violence. Okay, I doubt Jason Statham was falsely imprisoned to coerce him into making this movie, but I might respect him more if he were.
This review, like Warden Hennessey, is Lean-N-Mean, weighing in at 666 words exactly.