Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We recommend five days of action vehicles, each starring a different member of The Expendables.
Death Race (2008)
The biggest mistake Death Race makes is positioning itself as a remake of the silly-but-beloved 1975 cult film Death Race 2000, particularly since Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2008 movie changed two key rules of the game. The Roger Corman-produced original followed a cross-country car race in which drivers earned points by running down innocent civilians. Anderson’s movie takes place in a prison, and the only people in danger are the racers themselves—all convicted criminals. Anderson’s movie makes another concession to niceness too: The main character, played by Jason Statham in that very Jason Statham-y way, ended up in the race after being framed for murder. In fact, he’s a wholesome family man!
Otherwise, though, Death Race is a suitable mixture of grim and fun, with the races (and race prep) delivered fast and furious. (Speaking of which, if the Fast And Furious movies can get a pass for being dumb fun, this movie ought to as well.) Statham’s joined by a funny, weird supporting cast, with Deadwood’s Ian McShane as his head mechanic and Frederick Koehler—little Chip from Kate & Allie!—as some sort of statistician. (It doesn’t matter.)
The racing scenes are shot in muted grays and greens, with flashes of color delivered via orange fire and yellow gunshots (and the occasional dash of lipstick from the Death Race navigators, all female). The plot—not that it matters too much—concerns the pay-per-view revenues from the nationally televised Death Race; hoping to boost ratings, the steel-hearted warden (Joan Allen) plots the murder of Statham’s wife just so she can draft him as a driver. Anderson uses the idea that the races are being televised to make them even more video game-like, with leaderboards and characters with flashy nicknames (Machine Gun Joe, The Grim Reaper, etc.) There are even power-ups on the track itself, which feels like an idea stolen directly from Super Mario Kart. (Anderson, it should be noted, has written and directed about a zillion Resident Evil movies.) But none of that detracts from Death Race’s mindless, bloody fun. It plays like a classic ’80s actioner, à la Commando or Cobra, in which the end is never in question, but the enjoyment is in getting there—and watching things blow up along the way.
Availability: The theatrical and unrated versions of Death Race are available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.