Rating: R and Unrated
Jason Statham as Jensen Ames
Joan Allen as Hennessey
Ian McShane as Coach
Tyrese Gibson as Machine Gun Joe
Natalie Martinez as Case
Max Ryan as Pachenko
Jason Clarke as Ulrich
Frederick Koehler as Lists
Jacob Vargas as Gunner
Justin Mader as Travis Colt
Robert LaSardo as Grimm
Robin Shou as 14K
Start Your Engines: Making a “Death Race”
Behind The Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts
Feature Commentary with Director Paul W.S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt (Unrated Version Only)
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
French and Spanish Language Tracks
French and Spanish Subtitles
Running Time: 1 Hour 51 Minutes (Unrated), 1 Hour 45 Minutes
In the near future, the American public has found a new form of entertainment “Death Race.” Created by prison warden Hennessey, the broadcast features violent criminals racing “Mad Max”-like vehicles on a closed course. And on the course anything goes. Once a criminal wins five races, they are free to leave the prison or die trying.
The star of “Death Race” is a horribly scarred masked driver nicknamed “Frankenstein.” But when he’s killed as he’s about to win his fifth race, Hennessey is left without a star. She turns to a new inmate named Jensen Ames to take on the role of Frankenstein. Ames was framed for the murder of his wife and now looks for a way to get out of prison and get his infant daughter back. He reluctantly agrees to play Hennessey’s game. But when he learns that the warden was behind the death of his wife and his imprisonment, Ames not only drives for his freedom but revenge.
“Death Race” is rated R for strong violence and language. An unrated version is also included.
When you hear of a movie like “Death Race,” you’re not expecting Academy Award-winning performances, high art, or emotional drama. You expect testosterone overload, fast and cool cars, beautiful women, impressive action, big guns, and an eardrum-exploding soundtrack. And “Death Race” delivers that on all fronts. It’s a B-Movie with a big budget and it’s a lot of fun.
By coincidence, I happened to see the original “Death Race 2000” when it was released on DVD a few months ago. This new “Death Race” bears little resemblance to it and that’s a good thing. However, it keeps a few key aspects such as the violent car deaths, the parody of American infatuation with violence, and the racing. Oh yeah, and the beautiful navigators. But one thing that surprised me was the fact that they kept the Frankenstein character. In fact, when we briefly see the original Frankenstein at the beginning of the film, I could have sworn he was voiced by David Carradine who played the character in the original. I could have been wrong and it may have been an impersonator, but in any case it was a great tip of the hat to “Death Race 2000.”
I love car chases and “Death Race” certainly featured some good ones. There are a number of cool stunts, one in particular involving an 18-wheeler. I don’t want to spoil it here, but the way it ultimately crashed will definitely leave you saying, “Ooohhh! Ouch!” There’s a fair amount of action off of the track, too. Jason Statham has proven himself to be an entertaining fighter in other films and he gets a few chances to demonstrate his skills here. When, as the masked Frankenstein, he gets his first taste of revenge, the theater applauded. You will too.
As for the cast, Statham is the same character he is in every movie, and that’s OK. It’s what’s called for here. Natalie Martinez is also great eye candy as Case. But let’s face it, that’s the primary purpose of her character. Why else would a driver need a hot chick navigator on a closed course they’ve raced multiple times before? And then there’s Joan Allen as Hennessey. She brings a lot of credibility to this B-Movie, so it’s a guilty pleasure to hear her deliver lines like, “You can be my Frankenstein and stay here with me” with a straight face. She’s a fantastic villainess and the way she plays her role straight makes it all the more entertaining.
The music by Paul Haslinger is also a lot of fun. It’s a down and dirty, testosterone-filled rock track that sounds like a mix of a John Carpenter soundtrack and something out of the ’70s version of “Death Race.”
In the end, “Death Race” is your classic tale of revenge set against the B-movie premise of prisoners killing each other with cars. What’s not to love?
What didn’t work? Well, here’s one big thing not to love the camerawork. In every racing scene, they shake the camera and add a sort of strobe effect. Throw in a projector that’s out of focus and you understand the problem. It makes it incredibly difficult to tell what’s going on. At best it’s just confusing. At worst it could induce epileptic seizures. I’m sure this looked great on the little monitors that the crew were watching on set, but on a giant screen in front of a theatrical audience, it appears to be one big blur. I hate the ‘shaky cam.’
One other unrelated gripe I’ve never seen so many infants and toddlers at an R-rated movie. The screening I attended was full of them. It was mind blowing and bordering on child abuse. Maybe we really are heading towards a society that finds real death and violence to be high entertainment.
This DVD is rather light on bonus features. There’s a commentary on the unrated version of the film by Paul Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. Speaking of the unrated version of the film, there is 6 minutes of extra footage. I’ll admit I had a hard time spotting what was new. There was a little bit more of Jensen fighting the riot police. Then there’s a lot of Case hanging out of the car hitting the machine guns with a wrench to un-jam them. At least it shows the pretty women were more than just navigators. You’ll also find your usual ‘making of’ featurettes. They cover the stunts with the cars and the casting.
The Bottom Line:
In short, “Death Race” is a guilty pleasure. It’s a fun B-Movie in a big budget package. If you’re looking for mindless action, you’ll want to check out “Death Race.”