Have you ever noticed that when a movie is released that takes place in “the not-too-distant future”, that future is always bleak? Sometimes only marginally worse than things are today, and sometimes cataclysmically awful, but pretty much invariably bad. Perhaps a huge section of the population has been wiped out by nuclear war or a viral outbreak and the survivors are left to fight over the decaying scraps of society. Such examples of films in this vein are The Road Warrior and Escape From New York, which remain classics of the genre, a genre that Doomsday utterly failed earlier this year.
Then there are those films that require less of a stretch of the imagination. In fact, the setting is set up in the first two minutes of Death Race: “In the year 2012, the economies of the world have collapsed. Crime rates are at an all-time high, and the prison system is at a breaking point. Prisons are now controlled by large corporations for profit…” yada yada yada. Basically, a deadly competition was set up involving the dregs of society, who would challenge each other in a no-holds-barred road-race. Quite simply, the winner gets his freedom, the losers don’t live to race again. It’s all overseen by Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen), a tough-as-nails entrepreneur who created the game. But when her star driver, the masked “Frankenstein” dies after a crash, she looks to former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) to take his place having been sent to prison for murdering his wife (a crime for which he was framed).
Death Race was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil series), so I knew going in that I wasn’t going to get Shakespeare. My hopes weren’t all that high, I have to tell you. When I saw The Condemned last year, I was intrigued; I expected a Most Dangerous Game kind of story, but I ended up disappointed because it got so puffed up on its message – “we love violence, therefore we all suck” – that it deflated the entire story, which was supposed to be an action movie. Note to Hollywood: if you want to send a message, fine, just don’t use Stone Cold Steve Austin to send it. Please.
Death Race, I am delighted to say, never once tried to be anything that it wasn’t. It was an adrenaline-filled, testosterone-charged thrill ride with terrific stunts, awesome explosions, and the action never let up for a moment. They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel; instead, they put Jason Statham behind it, which worked very well for me in the Transporter films. And I loved every damn minute of it.
Much like The Running Man two decades ago, this was over-the-top, action-for-action’s-sake at its popcorn-gulping best. I expected violence, profanity, and gore to the nth degree, and it did not disappoint. At all. Go see this film, but before you enter the theater, be sure to switch off your brain and shed your preconceptions. Otherwise, you won’t see the forest for the trees.
4 ½ / 5 stars