Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race is based, in name at least, on the Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000. Because the original is something of an underground favorite, fans have been quick to cry sacrilege on the new version, but I can’t help thinking that if there’s any man worthy of remaking a Corman movie it has to be Paul W.S. Anderson. Though Corman has in recent years achieved a sort of quasi-deity status among film nerds, his career as a filmmaker was chiefly characterized by cheap thrills made in large quantities rather than carefully planned, thoughtful quality. Anderson’s career has taken much of the same path, and for it he has (perhaps deservedly) suffered the slings and arrows of modern film critics. Roger Corman and Paul W.S. Anderson have a lot in common, and if Anderson’s new Death Race is guilty of anything it isn’t sacrilege, it’s the dubious sin of delivering exactly as advertised.
There are no surprises in Death Race, but there are no glaring disappointments either. The film you’ve seen in the trailers is exactly the one that ends up on screen. It’s less a remake of Death Race 2000 than it is Running Man with cars. Jason Statham stars in yet another movie where he gets to do what he does best: punch people in the head and drive recklessly. He pulls it off here as Jensen Ames, a man wrongly framed for the murder of his wife, and sent to a near-future prison in which the warden holds televised car races to the death.
Ames shows up in prison, gets in his obligatory first-day prison fight, and then goes to meet the warden who tells him if he races in her little contest and survives long enough to win, he’ll earn his freedom. Facing life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Ames agrees to get behind the wheel. Ames is given a team of fellow prisoners to serve as his mechanics. Leading the group is Ian McShane, gleefully stealing every scene with his deadpan expression and his growling voice.
When McShane isn’t stealing scenes, it’s up to the cars, and they do their part. Anderson knows we’re there to see guys shooting each other up with Mustang mounted machine guns, and after a good thirty minutes or so he gets to the point. This movie succeeds at being exactly what it’s supposed to be: Prisoners in heavily armed racecars ramming, slamming, shooting, and blowing the crap out of each other. The racing never completely devolves into the scene killing shaky cam that most cars use, and Anderson does it all with an evenly spaced out amount of blood splatter. He never pushes his R-rating, in fact with a cut or two and a little less cursing he might have pulled off a PG-13, but Death Race is exactly as hard-edged and gritty as it needs to be for the kind of movie we’re buying tickets to see.
This isn’t a particularly smart movie, but it’s a fun movie, and one that delivers on the car killing mayhem it’s supposed to. Paul W.S. Anderson may have a lot of flaws as a filmmaker, but the man knows cheap thrills, and he delivers them here. I’m not sure what else you could possibly ask from a movie called Death Race, except that it have both death and racing. It does, and if that’s your flavor then bon appetit.