“Death Race” is designed either for pre-pubescent boys or for the die hard action junkie. Most everyone else will be disappointed by Paul W. S. Andersen’s latest foray in the action adventure genre. Paul W. S. Andersen took on the roles of producer, director and writer for this project and the lack of outside input comes through. There are a few redeeming qualities to this film; including some innovative action sequences and some great acting by Joan Allen, as Hennessey. However, other than some quick wit from other characters like Gunner (Jacob Vargas) this movie crashes and burns. The only other positive feature to “Death Race” is that it is over in less than ninety minutes.
This film could have been much better with some character development, and a little more dialogue. Why would anyone care about a character who is introduced for four to five minutes and then killed off? This happens several times. Suzy (Tanya Stephens), Jason Statham’s wife, is killed after a few meaningless lines of dialogue, with her husband. This happens again with other characters including: 14K (Robin Shou) who is killed after having zero lines of dialogue and again with Pachenko (Max Ryan). The only characters who have any dimension are Hennessey (Joan Allen), the prison warden, and Jensen (Jason Stratham). It seems like everyone else was forgotten.
This story and plot are sparse in order to make way for more action sequences. It seems like the focus was on making as many scenes with flashing gun muzzles or car explosions, than on character background or motivations. This will appeal to some but for others there’s the question of, what is this movie about? Besides, this movie has been done before and better in films like “The Running Man” or “Battle Royale.” However, some might say that this film is sheer escapism and might compare it to a thrill ride at an amusement park but even the haunted house ride is a little scary and the Ferris wheel is fun at the top. This movie is neither scary nor overly fun.
With the warden antagonizing the prisoners with lines like “You’re not fit to be fathers, not fit to be husbands, but you might be fit to race” it amps up the tension between antagonist and protagonist. Hennessey is played well by Joan Allen and her double-crossing manipulative ways make her an excellent villain. The few scenes between Jensen and Hennessey are the best of the film. Especially, since there is no line she will not cross, in order to have the fastest drivers on the show “Death Race.” The way she is made to pay for her betrayals is the comedic highlight of the movie and had the audience laughing.
The central theme to this film, other than violence, is North America’s love for the automobile. To see cars suped up with everything from .50 calibre machine guns, black smoke exhausts, thick armour, and bullet proof glass, does have its appeal. Another, great scene occurs when a fully armoured semi blasts orange flame and bullets at the other drivers in the race. The action in the film is almost non stop while being over the top. If there’s a pause in the car racing then there are fist fights in the prison; if the prison fights are over then there are stare downs, beatings, and stabbings in the welding shop. It could be said that his type of action is fun. But is it fun or simply dumb?
In the end, other than a few interesting action scenes and some good lines from the character Gunner (Jacob Vargas), this film is a definite miss. Although, a better film than Robert Corman’s original “Death Race 2000” there is little in the way of plot, story, or interesting social commentary. Only absolute action junkies will enjoy this film everyone else needs to drive away, really, really fast.