The original Death Race 2000, produced by B-movie mogul Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, was a brilliant bit of subversive schlock entertainment. An action-packed mix of pitch-black satire and dystopian science fiction, the film was set in the future, during a deadly cross-country race where drivers earn points for killing pedestrians. David Carradine starred as Frankenstein, the most popular driver in Death Race, and a covert agent in the rebellion determined to topple the totalitarian government. And though the film was a low-budget bit of exploitation cinema, thanks to its wicked sense of humor and scathing look at the media and society's obsession with violence, it amounted to something more, eventually earning its place as a genuine cult classic. The same, however, cannot be said for Death Race, a re-imagining of the original film that assaults both intelligence and the senses with equal disregard, and seems destined to be nothing more than forgettable and bad.
Set in the very near future, Death Race finds a United States where the economy has collapsed, crime is rampant and the over-crowded prisons are run by private corporations. The only difference between the reality in the film and the world we live in now is that the massive Terminal Island prison is also home to the most popular show on television, "Death Race." Prisoners from Terminal Island race around the facility in tricked out cars that are loaded with weapons as they try to kill each other on the way to the finish line.
When former racer and ex-con Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife, he is sent to Terminal Island, where sadistic warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) makes him an offer he can't refuse. It seems that Frankenstein, Death Race's most popular driver, was killed in the last race, and Hennessey wants Ames to don the disfigured driver's mask to keep the millions of at-home viewers happy. Ames is reluctant, but Hennessey offers him freedom if he wins the race, which means he will get to see his baby girl. (Of course, we all know the warden will go back on her word). After taking nearly 40 minutes to introduce all the disposable characters and set up the paper-thin plot, the race begins, as Ames squares off against a motley assortment of disposable scumbags, including Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson--always the sign of a quality movie), who thinks Ames is the real Frankenstein, and therefore will stop at nothing to kill our hero.
Death Race deviates about as far from the original Death Race 2000 as that film deviated from the original source material, a short story by Ib Melchior. And honestly, there's nothing wrong with this film taking its own approach to the material. The problem is that the material itself is so poorly executed that Death Race, which at the very least should be lamebrain fun, is little more than a crappy waste of time.
The list of things wrong with Death Race is long and complicated; but if you want to get right down to it, the one major problem with the movie--a problem that keeps it mired in stupidity and junky filmmaking--would have to be Paul W.S. Anderson. Written and directed by the auteur best known for Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, Death Race is an exercise in bad filmmaking not-so cleverly disguised by tons of special effects and quick edits, which is what Anderson does best. He constructs films of unexceptional mediocrity that often hide behind enough special effects and eye candy that it isn't readily obvious that you're watching crap until the final credits roll. But with Death Race, it is obvious you're watching trash. And not good trash, like the original, but bad trash, like the kind that is garbage.
Anderson's direction can best be described as Michael Bay on speed, creating a frantic pace that is supposed to be both exciting and tense. Unfortunately, the effects of Anderson's direction are confusion, sensory overload, and a general apathy for everything going on with the characters. Not that there should be much in terms of emotional connection with the characters in a film called Death Race, but at the same time, you don't want people wondering how long before this overwrought mess is finally over. Likewise, it seems that something as simple as a car race--even one where people are trying to kill each other--should never be so convoluted that you're left wondering, "What's going on?"
Anderson's direction is enhanced by his writing, which is, miraculously, both heavy handed and lightweight at the same time. For an action film with tons of special effects, there seems to be an inordinate amount of talking, talking and more talking. Or maybe it is just that Anderson's dialog is so insipid that it just seems like none of the characters will shut up. Whenever a character opens their mouth, it is impossible to keep from cringing at the ridiculous dialog that spills out.
Not to shoulder all of the film's ineptitude on Anderson, Death Race also suffers from lifeless performances by Statham and Gibson, a virtual dynamic duo of bad acting that manage to make an idiotic script even stupider. Neither Statham nor Gibson is known for their actual acting talents, but somehow they manage to hit a special low. And while Statham and Gibson are doing their best to respectively approximate the emotional range of a piece of cardboard and a wet blanket, co-star Joan Allen, in a role better suited for Billy Zane, is left to chew on the scenery like she's one of the Donner Party. Allen's sinister performance provides laughs--unintentional though they may be--in a film that fails to entertain on even the most lowbrow of standards.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]