When her star driver is injured, Hennessey (Allen) - prison warden and creator of new viewing sensation Death Race - has NASCAR star Ames (Statham) framed for murder. She offers him a deal: win the race and hell gain his freedom. Or die trying
Paul W. S. Anderson has been trying to bring his remake of Death Race 2000 to the big screen for 13 years - during which time much has changed for the British director. Notably, he stopped being plain old ‘Paul Anderson’ and sprouted initials, as a result of that other Paul Anderson running around, directing the odd masterpiece here and there. And somewhere along the way, PWSA - as nobody calls him - wasted the promise he showed in his early flicks to wallow in a state of arrested development, pumping out geek wishfulfilment flicks based on video-games and comic books.
At first glance, Death Race is another one of those projects - a remake-cum-adolescent fantasy - but unlike, say, Resident Evil and Alien Vs. Predator, Anderson delivers an unashamedly brutal actioner that pushes all the right guys’ flick buttons, combining hot chicks, hotter cars, enormous guns, and Joan Allen saying the word “cocksucker” into a preposterous but ready-made guilty pleasure.
The original Death Race was a satirical schlockfest in which David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone raced across America mowing down pedestrians for points. Anderson actually pitches this movie as a prequel of sorts, exploring the origins of Frankenstein (Statham, in the Carradine role) and Machine-Gun Joe (Tyrese, following Stallone) and, indeed, the concept of the death race itself.
By transplanting the action from the open road to a dank, maximum-security prison run by Allen’s Warden Hennessey, a ball-busting cross between a Stepford Wife and Maggie Thatcher, Anderson combines prison movie (The Camshaft Redemption, anyone?) with revenge flick. And while it’s one-dimensional, overcrowded with walking clichés (all hail Ian McShane, bringing a bedraggled charm to the role of Kindly Old Lag), and bereft of the original’s satire, the locale change allows Anderson to shift the focus of the event from a meandering affair to a concise three-lap race, during which drivers unleash guns, oil and even napalm upon their rivals.
It’s in the race sequences that Anderson shows why he was willing to wait so long to make the movie. The adherence to practical stunts results in some impressive chases, punctuated by gunfire, fireballs, rolls and spectacular collisions. They’re also extraordinarily violent, as drivers (and their gratuitously female navigators) are splattered at 70mph, ripped to shreds by gunfire or buzzsaws, or atomised by huge explosions. It’s not called Death Race for nothing. But Anderson’s B-movie bombast wouldn’t work nearly as well without its leading man, who’s utterly at home with this sort of material. In a role that had originally been earmarked for producer Tom Cruise, Statham handles the driving and punching with ease, while more than holding his own in the acting stakes, growling his lines at Allen as if he’d just set fire to the script and eaten the ashes. Statham has threatened to become a genuine lead man for a while now - he is the making of Death Race.
It's nothing more than an enjoyable, ridiculously macho B-movie romp, but it's Anderson's best movie since the underrated Event Horizon. Perhaps, at long last, he's starting to find his - yep - top gear.