Death Race had one of the most impressive previews of the year–thrilling shots of a kill-or-be-killed auto race with spectacular effects edited superbly to a heart-thumping soundtrack. Despite the dark premise, the preview was so well made, I was curious to see the film. I wish I hadn’t.
Technically proficient the film certainly was–a haunting apocalyptic production design set in fearsome locations in Montreal, gritty photography and incredible race footage. But Death Race was so relentlessly sadistic, so grim, so basically without any redeeming human value that even a race fan like me ended up being turned off by the so-called “ultimate in auto carnage.”
The premise: It’s the future, actually only three years away, and the world is a dismal grey place where everyone is either unemployed or in prison. Former auto racer Jensen Ames (Jason Stathen, Transporter) is falsely accused of killing his wife and sentenced to the labyrinthine prison run Hennessey, a prim-lipped evil female warden, played with charmless malevolence by Joan Allen (The Bourne Ultimatum). She makes Ames an offer she has no intention of letting him refuse–he must drive in the prison’s enormously popular televised auto race. “Win and get your freedom,” she tells him, “Or die trying.”
The more racers die and the more gruesomely they do so, the happier the home viewers are. Drivers and their navigators are shot, pulverized, burned, decapitated, disemboweled–you name a horrifying death and one of the unfortunate front seaters in this movie got it. The hyped up TV spectacle is a monstrous modern-day Rome with the raceways of the prison as the blood-soaked Coliseum.
Adding to the blood lust is plain old hormones, embodied in the hip-swinging crew of navigators–women prisoners let out for the day, including the bombshell husband-killer, Case, (played by gorgeous Cuban-American actress Natalie Martinez of TV’s Saints & Sinners.)
Ames’ main competitor is the big, nasty homosexual black champion, Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson, Four Brothers). All the cars are outfitted like war tanks, weapons ranging from machine guns to missile flame throwers. Nothing is fair–sabotage, double-crossing and outright murder challenge all the drivers. To boost the ratings, like a Network executive gone mad, Hennessey loads the tracks with a string of death-dealing obstacles, including a dragon-size armored vehicle that bores holes in passing vehicles so the navigator is drilled to death. Cute, huh?
With all tech credits top notch, it’s obvious that writer/director by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) knows how to make a movie. I can’t help but wonder though, why was such an obvious wealth of time and talent wasted on such a repulsive project? Get this guy some therapy and a new script, and I’d be eager to see what he comes up with.