Title: Death RaceDirector: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke, Frederick Koehler, Jacob Vargas, Justin Mader, Robert LaSardo, Robin Shou, David Carradine
Plot: Prison warden Hennessey (Allen) runs the the Terminal Island Penitentary which has a side line running ultra-violent races called “Death Race where prisoners compete to win five races and with it their freedom. Now former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (Statham) framed for the murder of his wife, he is offered a shot at freedom by impersonating the popular racer Frankenstein who was killed in the previous race but who Hennessey is keen to use keep alive to maintain her ratings.
Review: I don’t know what is the more surprising aspect of this remake, the fact that its as good as it is or the fact that its directed by Paul W.S. Anderson a director whose had more hits and misses than most directors manage in their career and leaving you never quite sure what to expect when you see his name in the director’s chair.
Spending over 13 years in pre-prodution the film was originally envisioned as a sequel to the cult classic original were it would have been called “Death Race 3000”, what we get instead is what Anderson views as being more of a prequel to the original film as the cross country race were competitors score points for running over pedestrians is instead replaced with a more traditional race format with the added bonus of weapons and a trap laden course. At the same time Anderson clearly seems to be working from the George Miller playbook when it comes to crafting the film with the film being built around practical effects, vicious looking vehicles and a heavy dose of vehicular carnage.
This change in format while unsurprisingly met with murmurs of disapproval from the established fans does however surprisingly work, thanks to the cast of colourful characters which Anderson populates the film with, each racer driving their own distinctly unique vehicle from Frankenstein’s Mustang through to Machine Gun Joe’s (Gibson) heavily armoured truck which makes a break from the usual fancy street cars we have become accustomed to seeing in the “Fast and Furious” films especially when they vehicles are not about looking pretty, but rather causing as much carnage as possible in the bid for ever higher ratings that these races attract. At the same time the use of practical effects and some extremely fance driving means that each crash or racer killed has the feeling of having some presence to it which is always lost when such scenes are shot in CGI so to see such a throwback to the classic car smash movies like the “Mad Max” films makes for a refreshing change let alone a fun thrill to see such carnage being unleashed on the screen.
Outside of the action on the track Statham here once again hones his usual gruff asskicker persona as he essentially transfers Frank from “The Transporter” into this pre-apocalyptic setting as he spends most of the film either kicking ass on or off the track, though at the remit of Statham the action this time is largely vehicular based clearly not wanting the comparisons to “The Transporter” to be too clearly drawn. Here Statham is also joined by a great cast with Gibson bringing a fun ruthless and competitive edge to the character of Machine Gun Joe and makes for the perfect rival on the track, while Allen in a departure from her usual roles makes for a great villain off the track as she cares for nothing other than the ratings and thinks little of the racers for the most part other than them being a disposable commodity especially when she has a full prison of competitors to replace them with. Ian McShane meanwhile provides most of the laughs with as Ames head mechanic and essentially steals the film whenever the camera is on him with his dry whit.
Plot wise the film is unsurprisingly pretty minimalistic with most of the focus of the film being based around what is happening on the track and trying to survive whatever new twist Hennessey chooses to thrown at the racers next with the film clearly being based around spectacle than anything else as no better shown than when Hennessey unleashes her heavily armoured 18 wheeler known as the Drednought and which we get to see spectacularly flipped in one of the many grandstand moments throughout the film and one which was suprisingly overshadowed by the lesser truck flip seen in “The Dark Knight”. As such some may choose to view the film as being loud and dumb especially when its choosing not to get bogged down in angst and attempts to add some kind of social commentary to what is happening. Instead what Anderson is doing here is showing that he recognises his audience and the fact that they are showing up to see cars get wrecked and Staham kick a lot of ass and that is exactly what he gives them, putting the film in the same category as “XXX” doomed to be critised by the critics for the sheer reason of giving the audience what they really want.
To compare this film to the original is a futile exercise as both exsist truly within their own rules while at the same time doing what we want them to do, according to the rules and confines of their individual worlds. As such its better just to enjoy both films for what they are, rather than attempting any kind of tit for tat comparison between the two. Instead leave your mind at the door and enjoy the full throttle carnage rush it more than provides.