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Rated 3.02 stars
by 341 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Road Warriors
by Adam Hakari

Death Race, a remake of Roger Corman's unabashedly goofy Death Race 2000, strips away its predecessor's satirical elements in favor of delivering a package tailor-made for hardcore action buffs. On any other day, this would spell doom, indicating the filmmakers' lack of intelligence and respect for their original source material. Thankfully, Death Race relishes its status as a dyed-in-the-wool popcorn flick, never pretending to do more than show its viewers a bloody good time.

In the not-too-distant future, America's economy has taken a big turn for the worse. With crime skyrocketing, private corporations have stepped up to the plate by operating all correctional facilities themselves. Rather than help rehabilitate society's ne'er-do-wells, these companies pit the prisoners against one another in literal death matches, all for the viewing pleasure of millions of subscribers. Former pro racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) finds himself in this world after being set up for his own wife's brutal murder.

Not long after Ames becomes the latest inmate at the foreboding Terminal Island Penitentiary, he's approached by icy-cold Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen) to take part in the Death Race, a three-day competition whose contestants do battle in souped-up cars armed to the teeth with various forms of weaponry. With his potential freedom on the line, Ames reluctantly agrees to drive, though he soon discovers that Hennessy doesn't exactly play fair. It's going to take a lot more than simply putting the pedal to the metal if he wants to conquer the Death Race.

I have to admit that Death Race is one of the most predictable movies in recent memory. There's not a frame of footage, not a twist in the story you don't see coming, the plot having been culled from about a dozen other movies with the same idea. But the trick here involves Death Race being perfectly aware of how mindless and over-the-top it is. Free of any pretensions other than offering 90 minutes of fast cars, big guns, and beautiful women, writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson allows himself to have some fun with his story, focusing more on playing up the film's style and atmosphere rather than on enhancing any underlying themes. Death Race is guilty pleasure material all the way, essentially boiling down to one big car chase which even the most hardened and cynical of viewers will have a tough time resisting.

With the Death Race itself separated into three different sections, you'd think the film would splash bunches of bullets across the screen and call it a day. Fortunately, Anderson tweaks each part of the race just enough to keep things interesting and exhilirating. The first and third portions of the race are fairly thrilling, but it's the middle section that emerges as the highlight, thanks to a fearsome vehicle called the Dreadnaught -- whipped out by Hennessy to perk up the competition. Anderson maintains an atmosphere reminiscent of a video game, what with "power-ups" like smoke shields, machine guns, and even napalm being used to take out other racers. But he also never lets the film get too mean-spirited, keeping the action all in good fun while ratcheting up the intensity  enough to whet the viewer's appetite about what will happen next. 

While concentrating on thrills and bloodshed above all, Death Race has little time for any other filmmaking nuances. This extends to the cast, whose respective performances all involve glowering or growling to some certain degree. For star Statham, his role amounts to a cake walk, assuming the comfortable tough guy persona that's been a great service to him, even in dreck like In the Name of the King. He definitely fares better than Tyrese Gibson, who plays his bitter rival. Although Gibson himself isn't that bad, his character is a stock bad guy ripped from the pages of the Big Book of Action Movie Cliches. None of the other racers in the mix are even worth mentioning, since they have the shelf life of those guys on "Star Trek" wearing the red shirts. But Joan Allen, a great dramatic actress, definitely surprises with her tough-as-nails turn as Terminal Island's ruthless ruler, and although she's not about to win any Oscars, Natalie Martinez appears more than capable of fulfilling her duties as the film's token eye candy.

All in all, Death Race isn't a great movie, nor is it the summer's best action film. But at this time of year when multiplexes are starting to get clogged up with more cinematic junk than usual, Death Race serves up a movie snack that's both breezy and loads of fun to watch.

MY RATING: *** (out of ****)

(Released by Universal and rated "R" for strong violence and language.)

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