The minimal plot is laid out as so: Ex-race car driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for murder and taken to the Terminal Island penitentiary to replace Frankenstein (the dead-by-the-first-car-crash driver), and participate in the highest rated show on TV via prison: DEATH RACE. Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen bringing the term "ice queen" to new heights) promises him release papers if he dons the frank-mask and drives. They're all here: the rivals, the bad guys, the worse guys, the goodhearted guys, the evil warden, the buffoon guard. It's stuff we've all seen before, so Race applies the majority of its focus on car racing. As with the original, this one pits Frankenstein against Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) and a few deadbeat contestants. Oddly though, after the initial action sequence, the rest of the scenes seem to stay at the same level: spin out, shoot, curse, quick edit, floor-it, curse, smash-into, blow-up, etc.
Statham once again abandons all acting to fall back on his I take-no-shit-from-no-one routine. I recognized Carradine's cameo voice-over for the set up of Frankenstein's demise (remember, he wears a mask). There is barely any similarity between Carradine's original character and Statham's, but there is no resemblance whatsoever between Gibson and Stallone. Gibson's Joe is just one bad-ass dude. No dimension. Unless you count that he might be gay. And then there's Coach (Ian Mcshane: perhaps one of the most talented actors walking the planet) adding some spirit with his all-wise testimonials, as though his character Swearingen from HBO's Deadwood was transported from the Wild West to whatever future year this movie takes place.
Death Race is void of the dumb humor and leftover '60s hipster iconography in DR 2000. Completely banished are the killing of old people and children to score points. This time, the entire race is limited to the island penitentiary grounds (instead of driving cross-country).
Predictably, Death Race rips off and resembles an assembly line of movies: Brubaker, Road Warrior, Longest Yard and Dirty Dozen (to name a few). In Death Race 2000 it was hilarious to see Carradine in a skeleton Halloween costume and/or Speedo lounging with naked chicks in wild red-and-green pastels while rival Stallone (in one of his first major starring roles) played a mumbling, grumbling hothead Italian idiot prone to temper tantrums. The only funny part in "DR whenever" was when the warden says almost all seven of George Carlin's words you can't say on TV, in one sentence. In fact, at the very end of the end credit music (which included machine guns blasting dubbed throughout), the line was repeated-I laughed both times I heard it.
Director Anderson is responsible for two Resident Evils, Alien vs Predator, and Mortal Combat, having a hand in producing and writing all of them. With this cheese fest background, it's no wonder exec-producer Corman picked him. Why they made it so grind-burn-and-sledgehammer heavy, draining out all the humor, is hard to figure out. What it all boils down to is this: Death Race is just one big demolition derby with machine guns.
Death Race ★★✩✩✩
Starring: Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen, Ian McShane
Directed by Paul WS Anderson