The original, Roger Corman production of Death Race 2000 was a high energy, in your face film that [sadly] predicted the reality TV thing. In its highly campy way, though, DR2K mixed in social commentary through the race’s rules [Hit a pedestrian? Add points. The pedestrian is an old lady? Bonus Points!]. The remake is a grittier, nastier piece of work that pits prison lifers against one another – and the last driver left alive wins [win five races and go free – in theory].
Jensen Ames [Jason Statham] is framed for the murder of his wife and finds himself on Terminal Island [think Alcatraz, 2015]. The warden [an exceptionally elegant Joan Allen] asks him if he will take over for a driver known only as Frankenstein. Poor Frankie died in the last race and she needs to keep the myth alive to keep up the ratings on the race’s internet subscription pay-per-view. Ames is given Frank’s pit crew, an oddball lot that includes Coach [Ian McShane], the pit chief who stayed on after his sentence was completed; Gunner [Jacob Vargas], a master mechanic, and Lists [Frederic Koehler], who seems to know more about everything than anyone else in the film.
Arrayed against Ames’ version of Frankenstein are nasties like Machine Gun Joe [Tyrese Gibson], Pachenko [Max Ryan] and Travis Colt [Justin Mader] – killers who treat their vehicles as weapons. Furthering the goonage is Jason Clarke as Warden Hennessy’s head guard, Ulrich. To balance the villains, Frank’s navigator is a gorgeous female convict named Case [Natalie Martinez], and she even gets to take part in the action a couple of times.
The big surprise about Death Race is that it is infinitely better than anything else director Paul W.S. Anderson has ever done. The writing [again by Anderson] is tight – though his attention to detail still needs a bit of work – and he stages some pretty impressive races. Even more impressive is that practically all the stunts and driving were done… well… practically.
True, the cast isn’t required to do much more than hit one or two notes apiece, but they hit those notes with the kind of enthusiasm that communicates itself onscreen. Although darker than the colorfully camp original, Anderson’s Death Race is not without its humor – some of it telegraphed but done with panache, and some of it sneakier than you might expect from the guy who gave us the Resident Evil and the Alien vs. Predator movies. And you won’t find many who can out cuss the elegant Warden Hennessy when things start to go wrong…
With a big budget and marketing plan, Death Race could, finally, vault Statham to actual action star status [and well past time]. It’s not the greatest action movie ever, but it does hit just the right spot in terms of vicious action, ham-fisted social commentary and general mayhem.
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Final Grade: B-