As hard as metal and just as dumb, Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Death Race” couldn’t be further from producer Roger Corman and director Paul Bartel’s goofy, bloody 1975 original, “Death Race 2000.” Basically a souped-up gladiatorial battle on a racetrack inside what’s supposedly future America’s toughest high-security prison, the pic maintains “2000’s” body count and a few character names, and dumps the rest — including the humor. Fans of the remake may not care, and will pony up for any late-summer package of high-throttle thrills.
It’s 2012, the U.S. economy is in meltdown, unemployment and crime are on the rise, and big, bad corporations have somehow taken over everything, including the prisons.
A rather meaningless action opener, showing how driver Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) blows away an opponent named Frankenstein (voiced by David Carradine, from “2000”), gets auds’ heart rates pumping. Rooting interest emerges with former racecar driver and now steel-plant worker Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) being laid off, with his fellow employees inexplicably confronted outside the plant by overly violent SWAT-style cops.
Back home with wife Suzy and baby Piper, Ames is surprised by a masked intruder who murders Suzy and frames Ames. He’s sent away to Terminal Island, home of the race, which is so heavily guarded that escape is futile. Much of this is explained to Ames by friendly but grizzled mechanic Coach (Ian McShane, reviving the same Yank accent he used in “Deadwood”). Big boss is warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), as tough as her well-manicured nails, while the local tough guys known as “the Brotherhood,” led by Pachenko (Max Ryan), try to send Ames a message with their fists.
With Joe having bumped Frankenstein, Hennessey tells Ames she needs a new contender for her “Death Race” pay-per-view show. Her offer: Win the three-day match, and he goes free. The catch: Lose, and he dies, since only the race’s sole survivor wins.
Coach and his pit crew, consisting of nerdy, brainy Lists (Fred Koehler) and Gunner (Jacob Vargas) prep Ames’ Mustang — so tricked out with armaments it makes the weapon cars in “2000” look like puddle jumpers — while Ames is told to wear Frankenstein’s metal mask as a way of maintaining the character’s intrigue.
But like so much else in “Death Race,” this detail is sloppily ignored whenever the story or action conveniently requires it. Since “2000” was dumb on its face, Bartel played it for camp; Anderson (whose other futuristic, effects-heavy exercises include “Resident Evil” and “Alien vs. Predator”), unfortunately, tries playing it straight.
Three race setpieces, styled as an “American Gladiators”-meets-“Ice Road Truckers” TV show, are the pic’s main events, and Anderson trains all his firepower with a numbing assault of quick cuts, hyperactive zooms, closeups of crashes and mega-explosions, lathered with a metal score by ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger.
The final race pits rivals Ames and Joe against the prison’s full force — such as it is. Pic’s escape plot and grease-monkey-inflected happy ending are nothing more than a mindless way to place things in park.
After both “Transporters,” “The Italian Job,” “Crank” and this, Statham must be getting tired of acting behind the wheel. But he does maintain his ultra-low-fat, chiseled facade and low-end voice for full effect in a pic that demands little more. McShane and Allen handle their paydays with little damage, while Gibson and Ryan are big masses of muscle and badass.
Scott Kevan’s widescreen lensing was overcooked in the lab to look as metallic as possible, and production designer Paul Denham Austerberry provides a stunning alteration of decaying Montreal industrial landscapes into the giant prison and race track.