Death Race

Director    Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring    Jason Statham, Ian McShane, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez
Release    AUG 22 (US) 26 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


30th September 2008

It wouldn't be fair to compare this modernised carmageddon to the 1975 movie that bares the same name. Sure, the film shares the same basic premise and the occasional character name, but they're different animals. While Paul Bartel's '70s exploitation road movie had David Carradine and a young Sly Stallone hauling ass across America in strange-looking cars, splattering pedestrians while doing so, Paul W.S. Anderson's idea is a darker affair, confined to a purpose-built maximum security prison on a secluded island. Instead of mowing down the general public for points, the characters here turn their weapons on one other, racing for the ultimate prize of freedom, all in the name of pay-per-view televisual entertainment.

Set a few years in the future, around 2012, the American economy has collapsed and crime is at an all new high (sound familiar?). Maximum security prison Terminal Island begins staging televised fights to the death between inmates, but the public soon demand more. Prison warden Hennessey (Allen) conjures up Death Race - literally a race to the death - and it proves popular, getting as many viewers as the Superbowl. But when the masked star attraction (known as Frankenstein) succumbs to injuries, Hennessey has former NASCAR driver Jenson Ames framed for the murder of his missus so he can fill the mask of the fan favourite and keep the ratings up. And with a bit of help from Lovejoy, he does just that.

As usual with Paul WS Anderson, plot plays second fiddle to the action. While the story is slight, the exhilarating race scenes genuinely impress. Anderson opts for a more hands-on approach when it comes to his action sequences, resulting in some stunning races complete with gunfire, big crashes and bloody big explosions (duh), the use of slow-motion savouring every, gun-blazing, blood-splattering, car-crunching moment. In an age of CG-dependent action flicks, this back-to-basics approach has to be commended - if you're gonna blow stuff up, at least do it for real. Crucially, Anderson keeps the film interesting throughout - Death Race is never dull.

This is thanks largely to the presence of Hollywood's new favourite low-rent cockney action star. Jason Statham does what he does best as the wrongly-convicted racing driver turned Death Race pawn: he holds his own on both the driving and kicking-arse front, all in his typically gruff manner. His pit crew, led by a laconic Ian McShane, offer little more than a touch of comic relief, but Joan Allen's Hennessey is a riot as the elegant but merciless prison warden with dollar signs in her eyes. She's blessed with the best/worst piece of dialogue in the script when she bellows the gem, "Fuck with me and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!" Come again?

While fans of the cult original will be far from impressed by Anderson's big 'n' brash spin on the classic B-movie gold, new audiences (hint: most of them will have testicles) will be drawn in by the sheer testosteronel; fast cars, big guns and scores of well-blessed beauties in tight jeans and low cut tops, with the ever-present slo-mo capturing every bounce perfectly. What could have been just another brainless throwaway action flick delivers so much more, thanks to a well-thought out story, a leading man in his element and buttloads of bona fide destruction and twisted metal. Dick Dastardly wouldn't last one lap of this shit...

More:  Action  Cars  Violence
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