Death Race evidences a cynical, shallow, indiscriminate outrage at… everything. In this future dystopia, the U.S. economy collapsed in 2012, followed by soaring unemployment, crime, and incarceration. Echoing Rollerball and Running Man, professional sport has merged with the penal system, providing both televised entertainment and a justice system in one neat, cost-saving package.
In the key incident that illustrates the extent of this fallen society, the government manufactures a riot by shutting down a manufacturing plant and laying off all its workers. The incited rioters make convenient scapegoats for society’s shortcomings, ultimately benefitting the government. One of these innocent blue-collar laborers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former crook trying to make an honest living as a family man. Like his character Frank in the Transporter films, his criminal forte was driving. Driving very fast. Unjustly imprisoned at Terminal Island Penitentiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Frankenstein, a masked fictitious racer in the titular Death Race. As with professional wresting villains and the Yankees, Frankenstein is a villain perfectly designed for the public to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Frankenstein died long ago.
Death Race was originally conceived as a higher-budgeted vehicle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was gradually downgraded to this video game pastiche helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson. It’s a dubious choice of source material, considering that the original Death Race 2000 (1975), starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, is one of the lesser-known apocalyptic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, and The Omega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade earlier. Carradine makes a voice cameo as the previous bearer of the Frankenstein mantle.
Since I’m never above pointing out the crushingly obvious, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist entertainments built upon brutality, sexism, and shaky moral ambivalence. The ostensibly hellish Terminal Island Penitentiary actually appears rather chaste and peaceful, making the scenario less distasteful to audiences. Rape is never a worry, and racially motivated conflict is only faintly alluded to by the presence of ethnic gangs (white supremacists are obliquely referred to as “The Brotherhood”). The drivers’ copilots are “Navigators” recruited from the neighboring women’s prison. These stunning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to titillate by the Warden (Joan Allen), in service of greater ratings. Speaking of, Anderson misses an opportunity to satirize televised sporting events as well as The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer or even Dodgeball did.
Death Race is mindlessly entertaining enough, until we’re asked to forgive unrepentant murderer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is confused: given an unjust prison system that exploits the guilty and innocent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty prisoners like Machine Gun Joe are so plentiful, why does the warden have to go to the bother of framing innocent people in the first place?
Statham supplies his usual persona of buff, terse, reluctant hero who has no time for girls (seriously, what is up with that? Transporter 2 even flirts with the notion his character Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre miscasting of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inexpressive (literally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the criminal waste of the powerfully imposing Ian McShane. He was nothing less than awesome in Deadwood, bringing to life a crime lord more interesting than even Tony Soprano. McShane also elevated the short-lived TV series Kings, playing his part like he was in Shakespeare while everyone else was trapped in an elementary school play. But even he can’t do anything to rescue this mess.