Back in 2008, Jason Statham was on an upswing. The Bank Job, his first major dramatic lead, had opened at the start of the year to strong reviews and decent box office. Transporter 3 was scheduled for the end of the year. Death Race was Statham's first big studio lead, and was expected to break him into the A List. Unfortunately it did not do well, and Statham would not get another shot at the big time until the double-punch of Furious 7 and Spy last year.
I only just watched this recently, and was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It reminded me of how awesome Jason Statham is, and inspired me to dedicate a few posts to his Royal Baldness.
A remake of the Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000 starring David Carradine, Death Race tells the story of Jensen Ames (Statham), a former car racer who winds up in a post-apocalyptic prison after he is framed for the murder of his wife. In this future, the economy has tanked so badly that services like prisons have been privatised. To keep the lights on, the prison's heartless warden, Hennessy (Joan Allen) has created a reality TV show in which inmates are forced to race each other in customised vehicles. A racer who wins five races wins his (or her) freedom.
Blackmailed with the promise of freedom and a chance to save his baby daughter, Jensen is forced to take the mantel of dead racer Frankenstein, a popular masked inmate who dies at the beginning of the movie (voiced by David Carradine). With their most popular star dead, the prison is determined to keep the ratings high, and will do anything to make sure that Frankenstein continues to race, whether Jensen likes it or not.
Aided by a ragtag team of inmates/mechanics (led by the great Ian McShane) and his female navigator Case (Natalie Martinez), Jensen is in a literal race for his life against a rogues gallery of rival drivers, not to mention the evil warden running the show.
I am not a Paul WS Anderson fan. Apart from this movie and parts of Event Horizon, I've found the movies I've watched of his to be sloppily made and extremely dull.
I was surprised at how neat and (relatively) strong the story was for this one. And while there are a few moments of handheld confusion, stylistically this movie is pretty easy to follow. It helps that the races are played for real. As a final title card informs us, all the vehicular mayhem was done in-camera, with real drivers smashing real cars into each other. It's terrific.
And the movie is pleasingly unpretentious. It's not striving for deeper meaning. It's a b-movie through and through: we get violence, a little sex, and some really corny one liners. And once the story runs out, the movie ends.
On the acting front, the cast do the job. McShane makes every silly line sound badass, Allen adds a touch of class as the ice queen-like villain and Tyrese Gibson, as rival racer Machine Gun Joe, does a good job of playing the least crazy of Jensen's opponents.
Now to the Statham of it all. Statham in an action movie is good, Statham behind the wheel? Better. It helps that he gets someone to spark off with Martinez as his foil.
Statham does not really 'do' chemistry, but his rapport with Martinez is one of the few times it feels like he likes another human being.
Martinez is great -- there's a few shots early on where Anderson's camera oogles her like a dirty old man, but the rapport between her and Statham is more of a professional partnership. It works for Statham, who has never been believable as a romantic lead. I hope they star in another movie together -- they have a cool dynamic.
While I would rank it a bit lower than the Transporters and Crank, Death Race is a solid genre flick and an excellent showcase for Statham's scowling, fighting and driving skills. On a scale of one to Statham, this one gets two thumbs up.
The Transporter (2002)
Transporter 2 (2005)