Paul W.S. Anderson's greasy, gory remake of the 1975 Roger Corman-produced, Paul Bartel-directed exploitation classic DEATH RACE 2000 won't win any awards for brains or originality, but it's better acted than one might expect. And unlike so many other recent violent action thrillers (THE CONDEMNED, UNTRACEABLE), it honestly delivers the goods without all the preachy moralizing about violent entertainment and cultural ruin.
It's 2025, the U.S. economy has collapsed and crime is out of control. The recently privatized prisons are at full capacity, but some, like Terminal Island Penitentiary, have found a way of turning a profit. Under the icily draconian Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen), this island prison has been staging cage fights between inmates which are then broadcasted uncensored over the Internet to paid subscribers. But jaded audiences have already grown bored, so Warden Hennessy has devised something new to sate their lust for brutal bread and circuses: A grueling three day, three-stage auto event that's part NASCAR, part demolition derby, part all-out war she quite justly calls "Death Race." The cars -- heavily armored and armed BMWs, Lamborghinis and Porsches that wouldn't look out of place parked outside the Thunderdome -- race around the perimeter of the island with an inmate in the driver's seat and a navigator from a womens' prison riding shotgun. It's a race to the death, but Hennessy promises that any driver who survives to win an unheard of five Death Races will go home a free man. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), who's been sentenced Terminal Island for killing his wife (Janaya Stephens) -- a crime he didn't actually commit -- is a three time racing champ, but he has no intention of taking part in Hennessy's bloodsport. Hennessy, however, has other plans for her new arrival. Unbeknownst to the other inmates or Death Race's legion of fans, she's just lost her most popular driver, the hideously disfigured masked man known only as Frankenstein, who died in a fiery crash. Hennessy has kept his death a secret to keep his fans tuning in, and she now wants Ames to don the mask and get behind the wheel of Frankenstein's car with the dead man's navigator, Case (Natalie Martinez), in the passenger seat. If he should beat Frankenstein's nemesis, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) and win his first Death Race, he'll be on his way to one day seeing his young daughter again. If not, he'll rot in prison and she'll grow up believing her father killed her mother. What choice does he have, especially after Ames figures out he may be racing against his wife's real killer?
Bartel’s original DEATH RACE 2000 was a cross-country affair, but relocating the action to a men’s maximum security prison allows for even more shank 'n' oil tank mayhem, and that’s exactly what Anderson’s remake delivers. Though not as politically sharp as the original, this remake has a terrific cast on hand to smooth over some rough spots. Statham is once again engaging and Allen is downright terrifying: With her face pulled as taut as her pencil skirt, she's the monstrous 21st-century counterpart to Faye Dunaway's ruthless Diana Christensen in NETWORK, a warden/producer who isn't above televised death to boost ratings. And when the screen fills with the homepage of Death Race website and a voice urges us to sign up now, it's clear we're meant to identify with Death Race's viewers, but there's no finger waving about it. When Ian McShane, who plays the head of Frankenstein's pit crew, says after a particularly glorious explosion, "Now, that's entertainment!" he's unapologetically sincere, and so is the movie. leave a comment --Ken Fox