One of the hoariest staples of prison movies is the old chestnut about the wrongly-convicted prizefighter who’s forced by the sleazy warden to participate in no-holds-barred matches inside the pen, either for his amusement or—more often—as a moneymaking venture. The idiotic twist in “Death Race” is that racecars replace boxing gloves. You can just hear the pitch meeting: “Yeah, Lou, it’s ‘Penitentiary’ meets ‘The Fast and the Furious.’” The capper must have come when they scored Jason Statham, the smoldering, blank-faced star of the “Transporter” movies, for the lead. After all, he proved he could sell pictures with little going for them but revved-up engines and fancy grillwork.
Maybe it was Statham’s presence that persuaded Joan Allen, of all people, to sign on to play the warden. Or maybe it was just that she had no other offers. One can only hope that it wasn’t the opportunity the script gave her to recite the unforgettable line, “Okay, cocks***er, f**k with me and we’ll see who sh**s on the sidewalk.” In any event, her pinched, rigid performance is even steelier than the armature on the hero’s car; she’s as monotonously inexpressive as he is.
Actually, the movie is a remake of sorts—a reworking of the ultra-cheap Roger Corman production “Death Race 2000,” from 1975, which was directed by Paul Bartel, of all people. That movie, a wild combination of action and satire, starred David Carradine as the reigning champ in a futuristic cross-country race—the new national pastime, no less—in which participants rack up points by running down pedestrians along the way. His primary competition was a thuggish pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. The refashioning by writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, who’s become sort of a less prolific version of Uwe Boll, adds the prison element, and unhappily jettisons most of the humor that Corman allowed to remain in what was reportedly a far more tongue-in-cheek original version by Bartel before the producer reedited it.
What we’re left with is another apocalyptic opus (see Anderson’s “Resident Evil”) in which the U.S. has gone economically belly-up and ordinary put-upon folk are brutalized by fascistic cops. Prisons are now run by private companies, which spruce up profits by staging first fatal fist-fights and then pay-per-view car races in which the drivers, in autos recast into virtual tanks equipped with exotic weaponry, try to kill one another, with the survivors eventually facing off in a final round. Straight-arrow Jensen Ames (Statham)—a former top-flight driver, recently fired—winds up in Warden Hennessey’s (Allen) Terminal Island lock-up, falsely convicted of killing his wife. She offers him a tasty deal: take over secretly for her most popular driver, the masked Frankenstein, who was killed in his last race; if he wins, it would count as Frank’s fifth victory and (under the rules) mean his release—which he desperately wants to get his infant daughter back.
The contest involves our steel-jawed hero with a variety on inmates: his chief adversary, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson); his gorgeous navigator Case (Natalie Martinez); and his pit crew, Coach (Ian McShane), Lists (Frederick Koehler) and Gunner (Jacob Vargas). But the obvious audience come-on isn’t the cast, it’s the violent, explosive race action, choreographed by Anderson and his team in the fashion of the video games with which the writer-director is obviously quite familiar, and shot in spastic, hyperactive style (and somber, gray-dominated images) by cinematographer Scott Kevan. The production design, by Paul D. Austerberry, matches the visual palette with unrelenting grime and desolation. Paul Haslinger’s score is so loud it almost drowns out the sound of the engines, especially when “the urban sound” intrudes.
The only actor who emerges relatively unscathed from this mess is McShane, who adopts an ironic, tongue-in-cheek mode (and, happily, is given the few lines in the script that pass for humor). Everybody else is terrible, with Statham doing his usual stoic bit while showing off his biceps (lots of shirts-off, and sometimes pants off, shots) and Gibson scowling in the usual fashion. Apart from Allen, who’s all decked out in executive suits as she marches about like a female storm trooper, and Jensen’s demure but little-glimpsed wife, the women are utterly objectified; Anderson revels in shooting Martinez, and the other female inmates, in slo-mo that emphasizes their derrieres (in tight short shorts, of course) and exposed navels. They’re not so much convicts as behind-the-bars hookers.
“Death Race” is loud, vulgar and stupid, but what’s most amazing is that despite all the bedlam, it will probably either bore you to tears or send you into gales of unintended laughter.