Dir. Paul WS Anderson. US. 2008. 105mins.
Forget satire. British genre expert Paul WS Anderson goes mostly for metal- and bone-crunching action in his efficiently visceral but not very imaginative rethink of Roger Corman's tongue-in-cheek 1975 B movie Death Race 2000. With reliable action everyman Jason Statham in the lead, this R-rated thrill ride could work for the kind of audience that follows car racing and mixed martial arts fighting on TV. But worldwide distributor Universal will be hard pressed to reach beyond that young male core, at least until the film hits the DVD market.
The studio opens Death Race wide in North America this weekend, giving the film a similar late summer slot to Statham's The Transporter 2 and Crank. Competition will come from a bunch of other late summer genre releases but as the first action thriller in the group the Universal/Relativity production should manage a decent, maybe even chart-topping opening.
Rolling out in other territories through September, October and November, the film will be helped by its action emphasis and, in the UK at least, by local boy recognition for Anderson and Statham. Part of the challenge will be to maximize theatrical takings before the arrival later this year of Statham's The Transporter 3.
Director-producer Anderson also wrote the script, based, though very loosely, on the Death Race 2000 screenplay by Robert Thom and Charles Griffith. In a grim and violent near future, Statham's Jensen Ames is a racing champ who has quit the sport to become a blue collar family man. Framed for the murder of his wife and thrown into the country's toughest prison, Ames is pushed by the ruthless warden (Allen) to compete in the Death Race, a last-man-driving car chase that pulls a massive TV audience and promises freedom to its first five-time winner.
Ames' racing team includes a jailbird mechanic (McShane) and a sexy navigator from the women's prison (Martinez). His rival drivers - apparently selected to represent the prison's different ethnic cliques, which might not hurt at the box office either - include black ace Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), an Asian mobster, a Latino psychopath, a neo-Nazi and a former NASCAR driver.
After a brief rubber-burning prologue, the film takes a long time to get back up to speed. Scenes in which Ames makes friends and enemies among his fellow prisoners and spars with the manipulative warden are hampered by stock characterizations, cliche-ridden dialogue and leaden pacing. A couple of brutal fist fights perk things up temporarily.
The race action, much of it shot on a disused train yard location near Montreal, comes in chunks through the latter two thirds of the story. Anderson, who made his name with Shopping and Mortal Kombat but hasn't directed since 2004's Alien Vs Predator, gives the action a video game feel but the thrills don't come from the race itself as much as from the random mayhem caused along the way. There's high-powered gunfire, plenty of crashes, some major explosions and a couple of gruesome fatalities. Anderson finds a few interesting angles from which to cover things, but there's nothing really memorable or original to wow jaded action fans.
Among the cast, Statham, who most recently starred in The Bank Job, adopts his usual tough but likeable persona (Ames occasionally swoons over a picture of his baby daughter to remind us about the likeable part). British veteran McShane, too, seems to be playing a comfortingly familiar role. Newcomer Martinez is OK in her very limited role. The only mild surprise in the whole film comes in the shape of Allen, who gets to spice up her familiar authority figure persona with some nastily raunchy dialogue. Anderson apparently enjoyed hearing one of Allen's lines so much he plays it again at the end of the closing credits.
Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures International
Paul WS Anderson
Dennis E Jones
Paul WS Anderson
Paul Denham Austerberry