Plot: The masses love the death race, a competitive road race that features wild stunts, weaponized vehicles, and colorful, larger than life personalities, all of whom compete for the ultimate prizes, survival and freedom. The drivers are all prisoners and if they win enough races, they’re set free, but of course living long enough to win those races has proven to be nearly impossible. A popular driver known as Frankenstein has racked up a ton of kills and almost enough wins to claim his freedom, but there’s a slight problem, as he died in the last death race. The fans are unaware of this, a fact that Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) plans to exploit and she seeks to replace the original driver with a new one. This won’t be tough since Frankenstein was always under a mask, so when hotshot former driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is locked up, she offers him a deal to take the wheel. One race and if he wins, he is a free man. But even if he can survive and outmaneuver the fierce competition, can Jensen trust the warden to keep her word or he is just being set up yet again?
Entertainment Value: Death Race 2000 was a wild, outlandish b movie about blood on the asphalt as part of a television show, a premise that returns for this quasi-reboot, even if it has been retooled. Now the drivers only endanger each other, so all the score based pedestrian hijinks have been removed, likely to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience this time around. I much prefer the original, but this new take is more than solid fun and focuses on the stuff I hoped, kinetic race battles, colorful drivers, and bad ass looking vehicles. I do think the movie slows to a crawl whenever we’re in the prison and the exposition kicks in, but Death Race spends a good deal of time on the track, so overall the pace is reasonable. The action scenes are the main draw and look great, with high impact stunts and some impressive set pieces, with visual effects that are above average across the board. I wish the entire movie was exposition over the headsets, as the race track scenes are so much fun and can be relentless, with one kinetic stunt or flashy battle after another. I wish it had more of the wild streak like the original, with more dark humor instead of cheese coated one liners, but in the end, Death Race was better than expected.
One of the reasons Death Race works so well is a diverse, interesting ensemble to bring the drivers and other characters to life. The wild drivers of the original are hard to top, but this reboot puts up a good showing and without a doubt, the cast is one of the film’s strongest assets. I’m not the world’s biggest Jason Statham fan, but he is a good choice for the lead, as his attitude suits the role well and the material doesn’t tax him to do much beyond one liners and scowls. But while he is the central element, his costars tend to outshine him and steal the show, as they’re able to be more colorful and embrace the camp a little more. Ian McShane has a small role, but it is fun to watch and he dials up his performance, while Joan Allen brings the ball busting warden to life so well, giving us a terrific villain to root against. The cast here also includes Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Robert LaSardo, and Robin Shou. The direction comes from Paul W.S. Anderson, veteran of these kind of large scale b movies.