Universal // 2008 // 111 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // December 20th, 2008
Get ready for a killer ride!
Prisoners race machine-gun-clad muscle cars in an effort to win their freedom. A terrible idea for a correctional facility; a great idea for a movie.
In the future, America's economy will collapse (we're talking about the future, now), and everyone will lose their jobs. At the same time, prisons across the country will be run by private companies who will establish a racing circuit to make money. It's called "Death Race" -- mainly because plenty of prisoners die while racing around industrial tracks shooting at each other. Of course, if this is all so dangerous, why would a prisoner subject himself to such an event? Because the first one to win five races is released.
Enter Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, The Bank Job), a newly unemployed steel worker who gets framed for murder. He's sent straight to the home of the Death Race, Terminal Island Prison, where the warden (Joan Allen, The Bourne Ultimatum) forces Jensen to impersonate the much-loved and freshly-killed prison-racer Frankenstein. Good thing Jensen has a background of race car driving! Now he must try and win his freedom (luckily he inherits Frankenstein's previous four wins) while the warden tries to gobble up more pay-per-view ratings.
Death Race is loosely based on Roger Corman's 1975 low-budget satire Death Race 2000, which had racers traveling across the country hitting pedestrians to score points.
Death Race is a ridiculous, guffaw-inducing B-movie filled with ridiculous amounts of explosions, bullets, and clichés. Thankfully, it all works. Death Race is just chaotic enough to be exciting while maintaining a healthy sense of camp and gimmickry that comes from a long line of movies kind of like this one. If you're a fan of the Roger Corman classic (as I am), you should know this version isn't as good; although, it's made very clear that director Paul W. S. Anderson wasn't really going the route of the remake, either.
The original film, while being hilariously entertaining, set its satire gun squarely on America's lust for violence. Death Race 2000 also sort of predicted the oncoming popularity of reality television. Now, with Death Race, Anderson takes plenty of jabs at the need for ratings, sensationalism, and pay-per-view sports. Unfortunately the satirical edge is dull due largely to the fact that the film is so claustrophobic. So much emphasis is placed on the races, and the "Death Race" pay-per-view setup, that Anderson never shows anyone outside of the prison. There is talk of ratings, of millions of viewers buying in to this event, and yet we never see shots of families crowding around televisions lusting for blood. It's like if Night of the Living Dead never showed a single zombie, you just heard they were out there somewhere.
But can we really expect a film like this to have a clear and effective layer of social commentary? After all, the more you think about the movie, and its premise, the more likely you are to stumble upon other plot-destroying questions: like, if everyone in America is poor and out of a job, why are they paying $250 for pay-per-view?
The real reason to watch this flick is the action. Anderson has a history of making videogame movies like Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat, so at least you know he's somewhat capable of filming stuff exploding (and it's odd how closely the races in this film play by Mario Kart rules). Death Race is probably one of his best efforts, actually. Almost all of the racing, crashes, and stunts you see in the film are real -- even when that giant 18-wheeler jackknifes. It's refreshing, and adds to the film's gritty, organic feel. What detracts from the film's look, however, is the spastic camera. Any time Anderson cuts to Statham, or Tyrese Gibson, or any of the other racers, the camera shakes like an overloaded washing machine. It's a cheap way of adding intensity to a scene -- like cars driving around with guns on them isn't intense enough.
Death Race also suffers from drab scenery. Whereas the original was colorful and cartoony, Anderson's film is dark and dirty. Yeah, I know it's a prison island, but the lack of variety, especially in the races, makes the movie lose its edge going into the third race. Every race looks like it takes place in that Detroit factory complex from the end of Robocop. The same could be said of the cars, which all look like gray tanks. Can't they at least give the prisoners some paint?
Anderson and Co. are going for realism. If you buy into the reality of the film, which I did from the start, then things essentially work. This suspension of disbelief is helped along by some great acting, including the usual fare from Statham and Tyrese Gibson (Transformers). It was also cool to see Ian McShane (Scoop) and Joan Allen in the mix; they brought some gravitas to a project that isn't really up their alley.
This special edition comes with both theatrical and unrated editions of the film (the unrated edition adds six minutes to the runtime). Despite its grimy look, Death Race's transfer is solid. The colors are crisp, and the black levels are rich and detailed. The whole experience is pretty excellent in anamorphic widescreen. The same can't really be said for the sound, which is technically good but stylistically annoying. The movie is obnoxious with its licensed music. Really, how many times do we need a blaring rap song to signify badass-ness? But if that's your thing, then you can't go wrong with the 5.1 Dolby Surround track provided.
The special features on the set are limited, but they are both informative and interesting. First there's the 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race, which covers the film's creation from development to filming. It features interviews with most of the folks involved, although sadly no word from executive producer Roger Corman. A brief follow-up featurette on the stunts is just as cool. Since practically all the stunts were done on set (as opposed to CGI), there's plenty for the drivers and coordinators to talk about. Lastly, there is a commentary track for the unrated version of the film featuring director Paul W. S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. Anderson and Bolt provide more detail on subjects mentioned in the featurettes, but things tend to get a little dry after a while.
For as exciting as the film can be at times, the races themselves actually manage to get boring after a while. This is mainly due to the fact that the scenery never changes. The original film had the advantage of being a cross-country lark, while this one just has the racers traveling around the prison island over and over again. And while there are a handful of cool stunts per race, too much time is spent showing the same machine guns shoot the same cars. After the first race, it's clear these guns only cosmetically affect the car, and yet Anderson insists on showing countless slow-mo shots of casings hitting the ground and trunks being turned into Swiss cheese.
Things are spiced up a bit when the 18-wheeled Dreadnought shows up, but there's little reason behind its existence. Let's make a vehicle that will totally destroy all the racers...so we can't have any more races? And why would ratings go up and down on a pay-per-view event? Do people really subscribe to a PPV in the middle? Sorry...I'm thinking too much about the film again.
Death Race is good, dumb fun. For the most part, the film succeeds in what it was trying to accomplish, even if the satire side of things doesn't really make sense. The action is well-choreographed, the acting is strong, and the premise is timeless in its absurdity. If you're looking for fast things blowing up, you got a safe bet right here.
Guilty, but this verdict could be overturned...if you win this race!
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Version
* Start Your Engines: The Making of Death Race
* Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts