In 1975, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman showed audiences a look at the near future with a biting film that deftly blended action and political commentary and satire. The film was “Death Race 2000” and starred David Carradine and featured a pre-“Rocky” Sylvester Stallone as bitter rivals in a brutal cross country race where finishing first was second only to the amount of death and carnage a driver left in their wake.
The film became a cult hit, and paved the way for films such as “Rollerball”, “Arena”, and countless other films that featured bloodlust sporting events for the masses a la Rome in the age of gladiators at the coliseum. Thirty-three years later, audiences are given the new and upgraded “Death Race” which benefits from a bigger budget with more carnage than the original film that inspired it ever dreamed of.
The film opens with an eerie warning of today’s troubled economic times, stating that the U.S.
economy collapses in 2012 and record unemployment and crime sweep the nation. With prisons overcrowded, corporations run correctional facilities for a profit and soon offer caged matches between inmates for the viewing pleasure of the nation. At first the matches are a huge success but soon lose their appeal to an audience that is eager for even bloodier sport.
In an effort to keep the cash flowing, the Death Race is created which pits convicts against one another in a brutal mix of speed, firepower, and death which in a few years surpasses even the Super Bowl as the most watched sporting event in the world.
Jason Statham stars as Jensen Ames, a former race driver who is framed for the murder of his wife and faces the prospect of life in prison while his daughter is raised by strangers. With the Death Race losing some if its audience, its creator, and warden of the prison, Hennessey (Joan Allen), offers Jensen a solution to both of their problems. If Jensen will pose as the masked Frankenstein for the race and win, he will be granted his freedom. It is learned that the real Frankenstein has finally succumbed to the numerous injuries he has incurred racing, and rather than risk losing his vast legions of fans who drive the ratings, it is easier to replace him than lose him, especially since recent races without Frankenstein had not garnered the same ratings as his past races.
It is explained that should a driver win five death races, they will be set free. Since Frankenstein has won four races, all Jensen has to do is win the race and stay alive to earn his freedom. Jensen is faced with an menacing list of adversaries including the deadly Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), who is the biggest threat to Jensen with an absolute hatred for Frankenstein. Gun Joe is a cold-blooded killer who wants nothing more than two more race wins to earn his freedom and will stop at nothing to get it.
Jensen is assisted by the talented Coach (Ian McShane), who dispenses wisdom while overseeing the crew that outfits Jensen’s suped up, armor-plated, and very heavily armed racer. Assigned to ride with Jensen as his Navigator is Case (Natalie Martinez), a female prisoner who, like many of her fellow navigators, sees the race as a chance to earn their freedom and other special perks which makes risking their lives a worthwhile endeavor.
As the race unfolds in three stages, Jensen is tasked with not only surviving the threats Machine Gun Joe and the other racers aim his way, but surviving the twisted scheme that has him in its grasp.
The action of the film is fast, brutal, and unforgiving and is easily the highlight of the film. Sadly there are plenty of scenes with stiff and uninspired characters, numerous plot holes and leaps of logic, and clichés that bog the film down.
Statham is his usual soft talking hard man, a character he has made a career out of playing in such films as the “Crank” and the “Transporter” series. But unlike those films, he is not given much material to work with here. Statham has done solid work in the past but Jensen is a paper thin character who never fully given a chance to develop nor be embraced by the audience.
The same is true for the rest of the cast, a talented ensemble left to languish in want of better material. The film is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson of the “Resident Evil” series who once again shows that he has an eye for action, but still has issues with pacing and unsympathetic characters. This is a shame as the premise of the film is solid, but unlike the original, lacks the social and political commentary needed to balance the carnage and mayhem.
With a little more time in shop and tinkering, this could have been a solid action film, instead it stalls at the starting line badly in need of a tune up.
2.5 stars out of 5.