Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 20, 2008, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


It’s appropriate that the name cited alongside Death Race 2000 in the opening credits of this sort-of remake is that of producer Roger Corman, rather than the 1975 film’s writers (who are only acknowledged during the end crawl). Death Race is the sort of redux that’s more about making the deal to exploit a familiar title, rather than aspiring to expand on, or at least recapture, the things that made the original so popular. Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the new movie abandons the provocative, grisly/satiric premise of the original, whose points-for-killing-bystanders motif would forever after have teenaged motorists speculating on how much they could score by running down that old lady or mother with a baby carriage. The only way “pedestrian” applies to the update is as a description of the story and filmmaking.

One would think that in this age of violent “reality” entertainment, NASCAR and rising fuel prices, there would be fun and topical points to make in the course of all the action, but Anderson doesn’t even try. Instead, he spins a blend of generic prison drama and The Running Man with the outrageousness leached out, set four years in the future when the American economy has collapsed and corporations run prisons, where gladiatorial matches have been staged for the on-line entertainment of the masses. Seeking something bigger and better to sate viewers’ bloodlust, the Death Race has been created on Terminal Island, an offshore maximum-security facility overseen by the icy Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen).

Terminal Island (a name-check of one of Death Race 2000’s drive-in contemporaries?) is where the toughest, hardest lifers go with no chance of getting out…except for one guy who refers to having been paroled, yet preferred to stay inside rather than face the outside world, in a halfhearted stab at Shawshank Redemption-esque character development. In any case, the only real chance for freedom is to win five times at the Death Race, a three-part competition between heavily armored vehicles on a track equipped with video-game-style drive-over pods that activate their weapons, shields and defense mechanisms. Four-time winner Frankenstein, who wears an iron mask covering his disfigured features, is the popular hero—but in the opening scene (in which he’s voiced by 2000 star David Carradine), he dies at the wheels of chief competitor Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson).

Hennessey finds a perfect replacement in Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a laid-off steelworker and former racer who is framed for his wife’s murder. Once he arrives at Terminal Island and Hennessey makes him an offer he can’t refuse—don Frankenstein’s mask in the next Death Race and win a get-out-of-jail-free card if he’s the victor—it doesn’t take long for Ames to note the coincidence of himself showing up at the prison just as Hennessey needs a new wheelman. And indeed, he soon realizes he’s a pawn in a plot whose particulars are as predictable as the mess-hall fight Ames gets into during his very first day in stir.

They’re contrived, too, which wouldn’t matter as much if Death Race offered more interesting characters and distinctive action. While Statham brings his dependable rugged charisma to bear, and manages to sustain a certain interest in Ames’ plight, this is yet another case of the actor doing more for a movie than it does for him, as he tries his best to bring shadings to the role that aren’t there in the material. Allen, who previously co-starred in the action-film Cadillacs Face/Off, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum and really should be above this sort of thing, also tries hard as a villain defined largely by her high heels. And as opposed to 2000’s colorful competitors, the one-dimensional supporting racers can only be distinguished by their ethnic races. It’s mentioned that Machine Gun Joe is gay, but Anderson doesn’t dare make more of that than a couple of tossed-off jokes.

Even Joe’s namesake weapons don’t set him apart, as all of the vehicles sport the big guns. Throughout, in fact, there’s a dispiriting lack of invention to the Death Race sequences, technically well-wrought though they may be. With car-stunt expert Spiro Razatos coordinating the action, the chases and crashes are certainly persuasive on a technical level, and once in a while there’s a particular gag that elicits the “wow” factor movies like this strive for. But each of the Death Race’s three stages looks and plays the same way, and the sameness of the mayhem isn’t helped by the overly familiar monochromatic hues of the cinematography by Scott Kevan, who previously provided (was allowed to provide?) lusher visual menace to the likes of Cabin Fever and Borderland.

Oh yeah, there are a few women besides Allen in the movie: the Death Racers’ navigators, all of whom have the odd habit of walking in slow motion without wearing bras. The only one allowed any dialogue—such as it is—is model-turned-actress Natalie Martinez as Ames’ sidekick Case, whose final appearance in the story requires an especially high suspension of disbelief. Equally hard to swallow is Ames’ closing voiceover, in which he states, after a preceding 100 minutes or so of mindless, undistinguished carnage, that what really matters in the world is love. He talks like he thinks he’s in a different movie, and by the end of Death Race, viewers might wish they were too.

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