Jason Statham is the unholy love child of Michael Caine and Jean-Claude Van Damme, hell-bent on appearing in as many low-rent action thrillers as possible in any calendar year. Sometimes his strategy pays off, as in the smashing caper flick The Bank Job, and sometimes it leads to an abomination such as the wretched In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Death Race falls somewhere between the two extremes, but that's largely because it's devoid of rubber-suited monsters or monarchs played by Burt Reynolds.
What we do get is a noisy, ignorant and mostly uninspired rehash of an admittedly inexpensive but sharp and delicious slab of '70s Roger Corman cheese. The original Death Race 2000 was a wickedly dark satire of plummeting media values, soulless politicians and the degraded public that lets them get away with it. The new Death Race is a lackluster chase movie dedicated to dudes who get chubbies from video game-styled kill shots, with only the vaguest notions of parody buried under 20 tons of smoldering scrap metal.
Still, Statham, with his steely gaze and cockney Bruce Willis delivery, is compulsively watchable, even as the movie falls apart around him. He stars as Jensen Ames, a former NASCAR champ who's been framed for his wife's murder, so that he can end up behind bars and the wheel of a tricked-out murder wagon in a televised 21st century chariot race. The TV show's the brainchild of ultra-corrupt Warden Hennessy, played to helmet-haired, ice-queen perfection by a slumming Joan Allen. The race takes place on a grimy, rusty, crumbling prison island, an industrial wasteland that could be the dodgier parts of Detroit's riverfront. The racers are a bland assortment of hardened criminals, lead by the dully psychotic "Machine Gun" Joe, played by former model Tyrese Gibson — who's outacted by Sylvester Stallone, who originated the role. Statham inherits the fan-fave role of "Frankenstein," so named because he's been blown up and stitched back together so many times he covers his face with a spooky-looking mask. Of course, the whole thing's a sham, Frank's a fabrication, and the driver behind the mask is expendable, a fact Hennessy keeps rubbing in Ames' face.
Meanwhile hack director Paul W.S. Anderson keeps rubbing his incompetence in the audience's collective face, with shapeless, excessively loud action scenes that bleed into one long, screeching bore. Millions of rounds of machine-gun fire fly with little effect, yet cars seem to burst into flames at the slightest contact with falling debris. The film's not a total write-off: Statham is reliable, and Ian McShane's a kick as the world-weary mechanic with the best punch lines. More often Death Race takes itself too seriously, and lacks the wit, excitement or open sexuality of its namesake. For god's sake it you're going to make an exploitation flick, exploit somebody!
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].