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Death Race (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Death Race

Death Race


Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Jacob Vargas, Justin Mader, Max Ryan and the voice of David Carradine.

Screenplay by Paul W.S. Anderson.

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  89 minutes.  Rated R.

This movie is an update of a cheesy 70s drive-in potboiler called Death Race 2000, starring a then-hot David Carradine of Kung Fu in a post-apocalyptic road race.  Since that original film’s target date has already been passed by eight years without its particular vision of the future coming close to coming true, the current Death Race is being coyer and not giving a specific year in its title.  We just go for a more vague time in the not overly distant future.

Unfortunately, the new Death Race has also made the mistake of taking itself way too seriously.  The old one was funny, campy and just slightly crazy.  It was a satire of sports, society and commerce.

The new one actually has more possibilities to make political and sociological points – the opening scroll about the US economy collapsing in 2012 is as shocking as anything in the movie and even more trenchant now with the federal bailouts than it was this summer when the film was released to theaters – however the film is more interested in spectacular crashes and explosions.  The movie is merely a stimulation of bloodlust – in fact the movie spends so much time stoking its fanboys into a lather that they have to end the film with a disclaimer: Guys this is dangerous and done by professionals – don’t try it at home!

The film is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson – not to be confused with respected director Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights andThere Will Be Blood fame.  No, Paul W.S. is responsible for such dreck as Alien vs. Predator, the Resident Evil series and Mortal Kombat.  He is also considered by film fans to be in a neck-and-neck three-way race for absolute worst director in the world with fellow video-game specialist Dr. Uwe Boll (In the Name of the King, BloodRayne and Alone in the Dark) and the two-headed comedy-killing monster of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Date Movie, Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans).

Actually, in comparison with Anderson’s body of work, Death Race isn’t all that bad.

Of course, in anyone else’s body of work, it’s not all that good either.

The story of Death Race is a simple one – basically an update of the old Roman Coliseum.  After the US economy tanks, the prison system is outsourced to corporations as a for-profit venture.  (Yes, the possibilities of a savage political satire keep popping up, but they are mostly fumbled.)

One of the corporations starts a prison apocryphally called Terminal Island.  On Terminal Island they have started “Death Race” – a pay-per-view extravaganza in which prisoners participate in a three-day race in which killing your opponents is not only not a bad thing, it is encouraged.  (Okay, first easy political targets, now reality TV – how are they not knocking such easy targets out of the ballpark?)

Jason Stratham, squandering the goodwill he bought with his recent strong performance in The Bank Job, returns to the mindless-killing-machine role that he plays entirely too regularly.  He plays Jenson Ames, a disgraced former pro racer who is framed in the murder of his wife.  His only chance of getting out of jail is to take the place of a popular masked driver who was killed in the last race (voiced by Death Race 2000 star Carradine in a nice-if-underplayed little nod to the past).

Take a pinch of Death Race 2000, mix in a little Escape From New York and The Road Warrior and lots and lots of artillery and what you end up with is… well kind of a mess.

The biggest question in all of Death Race is what the hell is a respected, Oscar-caliber actress like Joan Allen doing in this movie?  Well, it turns out she’s playing the evil warden, with the pinched, fragile distance of an actress who knows she is much too talented to be in a movie of this sort.

In fairness, Death Race does have some exciting – if way over the top – action sequences.  It just seems a waste that it is not nearly as good as it could be had a little imagination and intelligence been expended on the movie.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 13, 2008.

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