A movie like “Death Race,” in which hardened prisoners drive tricked-out cars and attempt to cross the finish line without being killed by the other racers, has exactly one shot at being enjoyable: It must present the race in a thrilling, dynamic fashion, coaxing viewers into an attitude of “let’s relax and watch these idiots murder each other.”
The fact that “Death Race” can’t even manage this one simple task is a testament to the incompetence of its writer and director, Paul W.S. Anderson (“Event Horizon,” “Resident Evil”), who has never made a good movie and apparently isn’t about to start now. The race itself doesn’t start until 37 minutes into the movie — and what could Anderson possibly think viewers would care about in those first 37 minutes? The backstories of the characters? Their hopes and dreams and motivations? No sir — or, anyway, not the way that material is presented here, i.e., generically. This is a C-movie with delusions of B-movie grandeur.
A loose remake of the 1975 cult favorite “Death Race 2000,” Anderson’s film stars Jason Statham as Jensen Ames, a former racer who is elaborately framed for murder and sent to Terminal Island maximum-security prison. It’s the year 2012, the economy is ruined, and prisons are run for profit by corporations. This particular prison, managed with ruthless precision by a severe woman named Hennessey (Joan Allen), has made a fortune televising Death Race, in which the inmates are given access to cars that they load with weapons and defenses and use to demolish one another in a three-stage race. If a driver wins the race five times without being killed, he’s set free (theoretically, anyway; no one has done it yet).
Hennessey is quick to recruit Ames as a driver, making you wonder if, gee, maybe she had a hand in getting him here in the first place. (The audience picks up on this a lot faster than Ames does.) Each driver gets a crew to help him construct his vehicle, and Ames’ is led by Coach (Ian McShane), a wise, philosophical guru who, like all inmates in movies about prisons, has astonishing access to a wide variety of things that you wouldn’t think a guy in prison would be able to get his hands on so readily. Among them: a TV, VCR, footage of yesterday’s race, a fancy gift box, and various detonators.
On race day, the drivers meet their navigators, who are invariably hot chicks bused in from the women’s facility up the road. This is done for the benefit of Death Race’s TV audience, which likes to look at hot chicks. It is also done for the benefit of “Death Race’s” movie audience, which also likes to look at hot chicks. Ames’ hot chick is named Case (Natalie Martinez). She’s in prison because she killed a cop. Just FYI.
There are nine contestants in the Death Race, but only two of them matter to the movie. One is Pachenko (Max Ryan), a Russian dude with a prior connection to Ames. The other is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), who had a personal rivalry with the racer Ames replaced. Ames inherited that driver’s public persona — “Frankenstein,” a masked, anonymous anti-hero — and the rivalry with it.
The film takes way too long to tell us all this, then fails to redeem itself when the racing begins. The race is shot and edited in the chaotic, spastic style so fashionable these days, and when you can tell what’s going on, what’s going on isn’t very creative: cars running into each other, cars spinning out of control, cars firing machine guns at one another, drivers gritting their teeth and saying tough-guy things, etc. All of this is intercut with shots of Joan Allen looking smug and imperious as she barks orders to underlings and oversees her dominion. No matter where someone is, Joan Allen always manages to be standing above them, observing. I bet Anderson spent three days doing nothing but having Joan Allen stand in various locations and getting shots of her looking coldly satisfied.
Anderson also gave Allen what may be the year’s most bizarre bit of dialogue. Angry at Ames’ attempts to fight against her, Hennessey says, “F*** with me and we’ll see who s***s on the sidewalk!” I have no idea what that means, but I like it. The movie needs more of that — more outrageously bad lines, more bloody deaths, more ingenious methods of dispatching enemies. Anderson offers nothing but crashes and explosions, apparently thinking we’ve never seen crashes and explosions before. He is wrong.
D+ (1 hr., 45 min.; )