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Death Race (2008)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez

Written and Directed By: Paul W.S. Anderson

The Short Version

A Corman classic gets a big budget reboot… in name only.

The race sequences are exciting.

The rest is a low mediocre cliché.

On the other hand, there is the matter of Joan Allen.

If you want violent car stuff and don’t really care about the story, Death Race delivers what its title promises.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Just smear it and snack and don’t ask questions.

Pairs Well With...


“Let’s go crazy!”

“I'm not supposed to win, either.  Just make it exciting.”

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 is justly remembered as a classic of violent, over-the-top social satire.

Big Hollywood’s remake from 33 years later may be violent and (for some) a little over the top, but a classic, satirical or otherwise?  Not even close.  The 2008 incarnation of Death Race is straight up, put-your-brain-away action, and that’s it.  Granted, that’s an acceptable “it,” but the distinction is worth noting from the get-go.

Taking its cues from a variety of dystopian futures (and precious few from Corman’s), Death Race introduces itself through the tried and true method of the text crawl”

“2012 - The United States economy collapses.

“Unemployment hits a record high.

“Crime rates spiral out of control.  The prison system reaches breaking point.

“PRIVATE CORPORATIONS now run all correctional facilities for profit.

“TERMINAL ISLAND Penitentiary streams a series of Cage Fights live on the Internet.

“Prisoners fight to the Death, creating a ratings sensation.

“They are the new Gladiators, and Terminal Island is their Coliseum.

“But like the mob of ancient Rome, the modern audience soon becomes bored.

“They demand more...

“DEATH RACE is born.”

Well; good thing that bored audience likes racing, because that’s really the only exciting thing about this flick.

After an opening race sequence that features a very classy vocal cameo by Mr. David Carradine (homage to his starring role in the Corman original), Death Race immediately degenerates into something that tries too hard that anyone’s going to really give a damn about the cliché-ridden backstory of Our Hero, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham, The Expendables 2).  Five totally useless minutes are devoted to showing the audience that he’s a downtrodden factory worker whose employer went out of business, screwed the employees out of their final paychecks, and then called in the riot police ‘just because.’  This is followed by him going home just long enough to show that his wife loves him despite the fact that he’s dirt poor, which is the cue for the tired old trope of masked dudes busting into the house, killing said wife, and framing Our Hero for the murder.  (If you miss the scene, don’t worry.  There’ll be several too many flashbacks to it.)  Then there’s the matter of getting him to prison where he can be mistreated by the guards, get attacked by mean inmates, and oh get on with it already!

I understand that writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson – he of Resident Evil franchise fame – has good intentions, but there is no part of this story that’s not built on a cliché that any likely audience has seen a hundred times before, so with one exception (wait for it), the character building (eyeroll) gets really old really fast.  Suffice it to say that the Evil Warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen, Face/Off), has “arranged” for Our Hero’s incarceration so he can participate in the Death Race.  If he wins, he (allegedly) goes free; if he loses… well, they do call it the Death Race, you know.

If you didn’t guess all of that before you even thought about watching this movie, I suggest avoiding Vegas.

From there, once you’ve been given the relevant detail that the Death Race is run in three stages, the rest of the story is almost laughably predictable, but let’s face it: none of that really matters and it never did.  Whatever illusions anyone else may be under, Death Race is all about the bloody sporting event and that’s it.  Fortunately for all of us, the sequences surrounding the bloody sporting event are exciting enough to make the surrounding low mediocrity worth putting up with, especially if one’s got a recreational beverage close at hand.

Flawed though the rest of the film may be, the feature event of Death Race is designed precisely to appeal to just the sort of audience most likely to be drawn to the name Death Race.  The vehicles are mean, nasty machines that are crosses between Road Warrior racers and James Bond cars.  The track is built around a ruined industrial hell, and it’s got some nasty hazards of its own.  The rules of the race are rigid enough to provide a decent framework but flexible enough to allow for some major acts of violent creativity as things progress.  The drivers are given just enough personality to be distinct from one another, and there’s room for just the right amount of gruesome humor to keep things light amidst all of the crashes and explosions and heavy machine gun fire and shredded driver parts.  Between the direction and the camera work and folks in the editing room, the action visuals are outstanding, so even if you don’t particularly enjoy watching real life racing – full disclosure: I can’t say I’m a fan – this race looks exciting at every stage.  When all is said and done, Death Race delivers on the only things it really needs to: the vehicular manslaughter and mayhem.

This is good, because otherwise, the cliché story and the gigantic plot holes and the “little talk” fiasco (you’ll know it when it happens, and you’ll want to make sure you’re not still holding your drink when you smack your forehead about it) would all add up to one ridiculous waste of time.

…Except for the matter of Warden Hennessey, that is.  Oh, sure, she’s just as cliché as the rest of the lot, but Joan Allen’s performance is way more fantastic than Death Race deserves.  It’s said that she took the role in part to dirty up her image, and she goes for it with the perfect blend of understated and hamtastic gusto.  This is especially true once the script decides it’s time for her to start swearing like stevedore, an auditory experience that is so joyfully hilarious to listen to that her best (utterly nonsensical) line is played again after the credits finish rolling.  I’m laughing out loud right now just thinking about it.

Joan Allen aside, though… yeah, it’s just about the cars and their machine guns.  (It sure isn’t about the kinda-angry soundtrack that only wishes it was cool enough to be done by Trent Reznor, which it’s not.)

Bottom line, Death Race is a study in cliché-ridden low mediocrity, but the exciting race sequences make it worth the look for anyone who might be attracted to a title like Death Race in the first place.  Just remember to keep you brain in neutral and don’t worry too much about the story, and it’ll work for cheesy late night action material.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2014

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