In the year 2012, the United States economy has collapsed and the crime rate is now at an all time high. Prison populations are growing and now large corporations have assumed the running of these prisons and have decided to use them for televised gladiatorial combat as an opiate for the masses, and yet the people want more, and they get it with the formation of the Death Race. The Death Race on Terminal Island prison is dominated by the masked personality Frankenstein, a public favorite, who’s just looked like he’s met his end. Meanwhile, factory worker and former race driver, Jensen Ames has just been laid off, and framed for the murder of his wife (leaving his baby daughter without really knowing her parents), and sent to Terminal where he’s forced to become the new Frankenstein…
And that’s the basic premise of Death Race a re-imagining of the Roger Corman/Paul Bartel classic sci-fi/cheesefest/satire of the 70s, this time coming from director Paul W.S. Anderson, himself no stranger to genre movies.
Anderson gives us something that lacks in the satire of the original (though it has it’s moments) but makes up for it in it’s high-octane action. Let’s make no mistake here, this ain’t high art and neither does it aspire to be, it’s simply adrenaline charged fun first and foremost with dosages of liberalism thrown in. It’s very much a B-movie, though in a different vein than the original.
Anderson’s film has a great look to it and a lot of cool action, especially around the race itself. It is rated R and it’s reflected in it’s violence and language mostly though it never goes quite as far as it could or should (Nick Marshall’s Doomsday from earlier in the year is a better example of going further with this sort of thing).
My other issue is in it’s liberal simplification of some things- in the opening lines of set-up, they say something like “Large Corporation” where they could’ve just as well as said “Evil Large Corporation” considering the tone of the film, and they play with the idea of “love conquering all” as somewhat of an absolute, especially when talking about the idea of what sort of father a man like Jensen Ames could be when presented with the possibility of finding his daughter (and it has one of the great movie cliches in it- with Jensen and his pre-murdered wife still so in love that he’s ready to just throw her up on the kitchen counter and have his way with her).
These moments weren’t deal-breakers by any means, I mean this is still a fun time, but it might’ve been elevated further had it not taken such a simplified approach.
Anderson’s got some good talent at work here- the always solid-as-a-rock Jason Statham taking on the Jensen Ames/Frankenstein role, Ian McShane as Coach, the lead in Ames driving crew, Tyrese Gibson taking on the part of Machine Gun Joe, and Joan Allen doing a great job of scenery chewing as Warden Hennessey. All concerned here know exactly what kind of movie they’re making and they deliver the goods appropriately. And for the fans of the original, you’ve even got David Carradine as the voice of the first Frankenstein seen in this film.
All in all, it’s solid fun and a good diversion more than anything else. This probably won’t change anyone’s mind in how they want to view the original film as really this one and that one are two entirely different things, just with a couple of things in common. The original movie is without a doubt one of the classics in B-movie/drive-in/grindhouse entertainment and a lot of fun in it’s own right (though really, if we were to apply today’s brand of criticism to it, well it would fail on all counts as a movie and probably be just as derided as something like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales) and this new version, it’s own beast, is it’s own brand of fun. I enjoyed it my own self, though I can’t necessarily say if others in today’s less forgiving audience would…