- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Universal
Reviewed by Will Harris
ew film critics have dared test the fortitude of the shaky limb where one must sit to proclaim director Paul W.S. Anderson to be a true auteur, but his filmography is full of productions that hold a special place in the hearts of sci-fi fans. Okay, so perhaps they’re often the less discerning sci-fi fans, but “Event Horizon” has a fairly rabid cult following, “Resident Evil” was successful enough to warrant two sequels, and no less an authority than James Cameron declared Anderson’s “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” to be his third favorite among the “Alien” films.
At the very least, Anderson’s films look good, but their problem has always been that they’re more about style and much, much less about substance. In a nutshell, they’re big-budget B-movies (though your personal grading scale may vary), which makes it less than a stretch to imagine him helming a remake of a Roger Corman production…except that “Death Race” really isn’t a remake of “Death Race 2000.” That film focused on an event known as the Transcontinental Road Race and smartly satirized government and society with a mixture of humor, horror, and action, going so far as to feature a character who was reportedly a descendent of Thomas Paine. The aspirations within “Death Race,” however, are decidedly less lofty, taking place almost entirely within the walls of a prison and setting the targets for its mockery no higher than pay-per-view.
Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is introduced as an average fella who’s just trying to do an honest day’s work in order to support his wife and child, but all traces of normalcy vanish from his life when his wife is slain and he’s framed for her murder. Fast-forward six months later, and he’s off to jail, where he’s invited by the steely-eyed Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) to participate as a driver in the latest pay-per-view sensation: “Death Race,” where convicts fashion their own vehicles and vie to win five races in a row, an accomplishment which earns them their freedom. It seems that the masked racer known as Frankenstein has succumbed to the injuries he incurred during his race, and since no one knows what his face looks like, anyway, Hennessey wants Ames to take Frankenstein’s place. This is a reasonable enough plan, since, after all, Ames used to be a NASCAR driver.
Oh, didn’t we mention that? Funny, neither does “Death Race” until after Ames is already in prison. That’s how little time Anderson provides for back story. The thrust of the film involves how much Ames wants to extract revenge on his wife’s killer and regain custody of his daughter, but neither is around long enough for the viewer to have any sort of emotional connection to them. One can imagine a stopwatch being used during the editing of the film, with Anderson saying, “Okay, people, we’re ten minutes in, and there’s been precious little death or racing. We’ve gotta pick up the pace!” As a result, “Death Race” is 90% action and 10% plot…and that’s being generous.
The saving graces of the film are twofold: its racing sequences and its supporting cast. The gore of the Death Race is unabashedly gratuitous, but the combination of fast cars, a claustrophobic track, and video-game-styled vehicle add-ons like machine guns and napalm make for an adrenaline-fueled viewing experience. As for the acting, Statham gives the same serviceable performance he gives in all of his action films, but the role of Jensen Ames gives him little more to do than sit behind a steering wheel and grimace; it’s Ian McShane and Allen who get the closest thing to meaty roles that the film has to offer, but even they aren’t give a whole lot to work with. Allen’s dialogue, intended to sound menacing, is often so ridiculous as to inspire laughter, but with that cold gaze of hers, when one of the prisoners calls her the baddest bitch in the prison, you can still somehow believe him. McShane’s one-liners aren’t great, but his glowering presence is enough to get him by.
Fans of “Death Race 2000” will be calling for Anderson’s head on a stick, but if you can turn off your mind and enjoy a big, dumb action movie with a whole lot of blood, guts, guns, and fast cars, you could do a lot worse.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Universal’s release of “Death Race” certainly isn’t the worst Blu-ray of the year, but it’s far from the best. Highlighted by an audio commentary with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt (who call star Jason Statham the perfect blend of “McQueen cool and Bronson hard”), the single-disc effort also includes two production featurettes: an average making-of (“Start Your Engines”) and a brief look at the film’s stunts (“Behind the Wheel”). The Blu-ray exclusive “Create Your Own Race” feature is ruined by the lack of seamless branching between camera angles, while the U-Control option isn’t quite as packed as usual. Still, the picture-in-picture video track and racer profiles are cool supplements to the film, and the studio’s trademark My Commentary feature remains one of Blu-ray’s best new additions.