Nothing in director Paul W.S. Anderson's schlock drawer—not "Mortal Kombat," not "Event Horizon," not "Resident Evil," not "Alien vs. Predator"—prepares you for the peppy, good-time nastiness that is "Death Race." It's a loose remake of "Death Race 2000" (1975), which imagined a bloodthirsty nation crazy for a cross-country rally full of flying, dying spectators and ruthlessly sociopathic drivers, not to mention Mary Woronov as the most fearsome thing on four wheels. Anderson's version goes its own frenetic way, and it's one of those vicious larks that just plain hit the spot. It hits the spot, throws 'er into reverse and hits the spot again, before machine-gunning it and ramming it head-on for the fun of it. Sadistic? Yessir. But our hero, a seething kettle of violence played by Jason Statham, is a devoted father of a sweet little girl who needs him, so it's sadism with a heart.
The '75 version veered wildly from camp to slapstick to gore. This one's a more even-toned affair, heavy on the gun-metal-gray color palette and the abandoned-foundry aesthetic. The year is 2012. Economy's ruined. The prison system lies in the clutches of private enterprise, and the most maximum of all maximum-security prisons is Terminal Island, where rough men lead rough lives and the bravest of them compete in the nation's most popular sporting event: Death Race.
The warden, who apparently grew up catching "Brute Force" at every available prison-film retrospective, controls everything about the murderous affair: who gets to deploy weaponry, and when, and who might win his freedom. Joan Allen plays this authoritarian witch with a steely, implacable air. Despite what appear to be dangerous levels of forehead-freezification (hope it's temporary!), Allen's quite good. In his 1.3-note way, so is Statham, whose abs have already signed up for the "Death Race" sequel, along with his glower.
Ian McShane has a high old time as Statham's grizzled racing coach. Tyrese Gibson brings the full seethe to the role of Machine Gun Joe, chief rival of Statham's Jensen Ames. And as Ames' cohort, track adviser and cleavage administrator, Natalie Martinez really knows how to get out of a tricked-out vehicle in slow motion while removing her sunglasses.
I'm making the movie out to be a different sort of cheese than it is, I fear. Anderson, who wrote the script, lays out the big frame-up (Ames takes the rap for his wife's murder) in a way that's efficient and effective. Aping the conventional three-act screenplay structure, the story's three races provide natural off-track breathers for ... well, for various other ways to kill somebody, or nearly.
Anderson's visual-spatial skills are limited at best: You never get the crucial establishing shot of the damn track, for one thing; for another, Anderson never seems to quit moving the frame in that " NYPD Blue"-derived can't-hold-still style. Yet I came out of "Death Race" strangely satisfied. It's just junk and noise and blood lust and decapitations plus "Wacky Races" gimmickry. (Let's amend that: It's "Wacky Bloodthirsty Sadistic Races" gimmickry.) But the audience whooped it up when the Statham and Gibson characters conspired to destroy that prison truck with the flame-thrower in Race 2.
Of course it's like a video game. So was "Shoot 'Em Up," which I hated. So was " Wanted," which I didn't like much. I like this one. I admire its purity of heart and frankness of intention, and even though Anderson has a lot to learn about shaping an extended action sequence, when that big truck flipped up in the air, vanquished, I was, like, wow. Cool.
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and language) Running time: 1:45 Opening: Aug. 22 Starring: Jason Statham (Jensen Ames); Tyrese Gibson (Machine Gun Joe); Joan Allen (Warden Hennessey); Ian McShane (Coach); Natalie Martinez (Case) Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson; written by Anderson, based on the film "Death Race 2000"; photographed by Scott Kevan; edited by Niven Howie; music by Paul Haslinger; production design by Paul Denham Austerberry; produced by Paula Wagner, Jeremy Bolt and Anderson. A Universal Pictures release.