‘Death Race’ Is a Car Wreck… In a Good Way

Jason Statham in Death Race

Unlike some people who bemoan Hollywood’s lack of creativity in spitting out an unprecedented amount of sequels and remakes each year, I understand why this is done. When you have a film that’s more than thirty years old, it totally makes sense to have it remade to take advantages of new trends, technology and tone available now.

Of course, there are some films that really shouldn’t be remade in the sense that they just cannot be improved. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the first ones that comes to mind. Same goes for A Miracle on 34th Street. Of course, that didn’t stop Hollywood from remaking these films, and we saw what failures they were.

When I first heard that Roger Corman’s original 1975 classic Death Race 2000 was going to remade, I wasn’t totally against it, but I was a bit skeptical. I’m a huge fan of the original film, and while it reeks of the 70s, it was a brilliant piece of social, political and entertainment satire.

I would be hard-pressed to call the new Death Race a remake of any kind. Sure, it’s about a no-hold-barred auto race to the death. Sure, it’s got a racer named Frankenstein because he’s supposedly disfigured from one too many car crashes. Sure, it’s got some hot chicks in the movie.

But this is where the similarities end. Rather than being a cross-country race, like an overly violent Cannonball Run we saw in the original film, this Death Race takes places exclusively on a prison island. There’s none of the biting and inappropriate elements of racers getting awarded points for whomever they run over, and there’s very little of the public celebrity factor associated with the racers.

This film, which stars Jason Statham as a former NASCAR driver who is framed for murder in order to get him into the race, is delivered as a serious action piece. It’s like last year’s flop The Condemned about prisoners fighting for their lives on a remote island. Think of it as Gone in 60 Seconds goes to jail.

I won’t say that Death Race is perfect – or event that good – by any respect. The story is awfully predictable, the dialogue is poorly written, the characters are two dimensional and the acting is about as canned as any action movie I’ve seen lately.

When it comes to the cast, they’re passable. I don’t know why Joan Allen is in this movie, and her performance is decent but felt phoned in. Perhaps director Paul W.S. Anderson has some embarrassing pictures of her, which gave him and edge in her casting negotiations. The other cast members work as their stock characters. Jason Statham plays his best Jason Statham, and Ian McShane is actually quite funny as the lead mechanic. And newcomer Natalie Martinez is very easy on the eyes in her tight black jeans.

But the real charm, if you will, comes to the high-octane action in the racing segments. And it is here that the film is quite simply awesome. The action is powerful and intense. It’s insanely violent with decapitations, bodily explosions and practical effects of cars crashing and discharging weapons at each other. The action is some of the best I’ve seen, and even with my snarky attitude at the Death Race 2000 remake, I found myself really enjoying the racing scenes.

This movie is like much of Anderson’s films… a big steaming pile of crap, but still a lot of fun to watch.

THE UPSIDE: Awesome, awesome action.

THE DOWNSIDE: Outside of the action, not much going on.

ON THE SIDE: There was some speculation this would be a prequel, which makes the whole 2000 aspect of the original film’s title a little confusing.

Grade: B+

Kevin Carr crawled from the primordial ooze in the early 1970s. He grew up watching movies to the point of irritation for his friends and was a font of useless movie knowledge until he decided to put that knowledge to good use. Now, Kevin is a nationally syndicated critic, heard on dozens of radio stations around the country, and his reviews appear in a variety of online outlets. Kevin is also a proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA).

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