DEATH RACE takes the stock characters of the more pedestrian action flicks and folds them nicely into a story that is interesting for more than the number of cars and people that go crunch before bursting into flames. Based on the kitsch classic by Roger Corman from the 1970s, it has been adapted by Paul W. S. Anderson to fit modern times. While it works on the level of a revenge fantasy, it also works, lightly, as an allegory of the far too near future.
It’s 2012, the United States economy has collapsed, crime and unemployment is up, and thus are the prisons overcrowded. The government has turned them all over to for-profit concerns that have found a way to make them exceptionally profitable. Death matches become ratings winners until a fickle public grows tired of them, at which point the ante is upped with the eponymous death race. Prisoners compete in a three-stage race, the first designed simply to eliminate the competition, the other two designed to do that and to get across the finish line first. Five wins, so the deal goes, and the prisoner walks away a free man. It’s not just any race of course. It has armored cars, heavy weapons, and no rules except to stay alive while getting across that finish line. All this is theoretical for Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an ex-racer turned family man and steelworker. That last is taken off the table when the steel mill closes, the second is plucked away when he’s framed for the murder of his beloved wife and his baby daughter enters foster care. How much of a coincidence is it that he finds himself at Terminal Island Prison, a place much in need of a new driver to take the place of the ratings darling, Frankenstein, who died of his injuries? All he has to do is put on the late driver’s mask, which, conveniently, he always wore, take out the drivers that are trying to take him out, including the ambitious Machine Gun Frank, an inmate with a killer instinct and an interesting guilt comples about it.
The stock characters start with Ames, and Statham once again displays the macho charisma that has stood him in good stead through a string of flicks, action and other. Steely-eyed, square-jawed, and with a raspy whisper of a voice that is more menacing than a shout, he’s cool on the outside with a roiling heart beating beneath a finely muscled exterior. The rest include Frederick Koehler as a baby-faced member of Ames’ pit crew, whose boyish innocence in a place for the most hardened of criminals is never quite explained, and the wisely avuncular Coach (Ian McShane), who heads the pit crew and offers Ames’s advice on staying alive on and off the track. Ames, is of course, all ears. He’s a man with a mission, three actually. One, win the race, two, avenge his wife’s murder, and three, bring down the infrastructure. It’s a big job, but he’s a touch hombre and he’s very motivated. The infrastructure is represented by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). She’s a cool, primly dressed cool blonde with the polished manners and decorum of a seasoned diplomat and the heart of a sociopath more degenerate than any of her charges. Allen is divine. A woman in absolute control of those around and herself who is never ruffled, never agitated, she is, indeed, and supremely self-assured, playing into males fears of female power by being exactly the type that so rankles the more deficient male egos. The dynamic between her and Statham in the battle of wits and wills is dynamic. And so are Statham’s lats, which are shown off to superb advantage as he does pull-ups bathed in a glorious noir-ish lighting.
The entire film is bathed in that sort of light, though gritted up with a post-apocalyptic, industrial gray. The dialogue spare and suitably nihilistic, tinged only occasionally with the barest soupcon of humor. This is anything but camp, played as straight and as seriously as the kittenish flicker of a smile on Hennessey’s face, the one that reveals the complete lack of a soul inside her immaculately groomed self.
DEATH RACE is fun, no more predictable than absolutely necessary, and for racing fans, there’s the jargon of exactly how one soups up a Mustang for mortal combat. For those wanting to read more into it, it’s a tidy extrapolation of the present into a world where money is unapologetically the only motive worth considering, and the proletariat is exploited to the fullest extent of the corporation. Either way, there are thrills and chills albeit, of the cheesy variety.