It is 2012 and a general state of chaos is brewing. The prison system has become a vicious for-profit world run by private companies, and the public’s thirst for blood has led to the phenom of the pay-per-view “death race” among felons with weapons-equipped machines. In this hardened time and place, there is no interest in the black humor behind Paul Bartel’s original film, Death Race 2000 (made in 1975, when the future didn’t seem quite so bleak). Now, it’s all about the death and the race. What a difference 12 sci-fi years make.
Both films share a producer credit by B-movie king Roger Corman, and the original’s star David Carradine does a voice cameo in the new model. But a major difference between this year’s gray, grim, and gritty affair and Bartel’s quirky outing is contextual. Resourceful wise guy Bartel was working the camp ‘n’ pulp circuit of the B-movie tradition-taken into an arty turf. Paul W.S. Anderson’s new Death Race works the new gray zone between action films and violent video gaming. But for all its faults and underachieving ambitions, the film succeeds in pumping up our angst and adrenaline.
Our beleaguered protagonist, played by a stern-jawed and no-guff-taking Jason Statham, has gone from a hard-working but happy proletariat family man to a slave to the system, forced to ply his killer driver skills in the role of the masked “Frankenstein.” When he meets his lovely race partner (Natalie Martinez) she quips, “You’re better looking than the last Frank. A few crashes will change that.” As the one pert, neatly dressed character in Anderson’s otherwise grimy milieu, Joan Allen almost steals her scenery as the steely cool and sadistic warden and race-tender of this latter-day gladiator gorefest. She also supplies a potty-mouthed riposte startling enough to be repeated, like a gnarly mantra, at the tail of the end credits.
By law and for fun, the filmmakers place a disclaimer at the end of the film, to the effect of “don’t try these car stunts in your hometown.” Better to keep this kind of mad derby vehicular behavior to your home computer screen.