There are plenty of differences between Death Race and its Roger Corman-produced, Paul Bartel-directed inspiration Death Race 2000, but the most telling one might be in the title. Where the 1975 original projected a blackly comic America 25 years into the future, the new Death Race is set in a desperate, economically strapped nation that's had its spirit crushed by an out-of-control economy. The year? 2012, which means whoever wins this year's election has loused up the country in less than one term. What does it mean when our dystopian fantasies have gotten even more pessimistic since the malaise-driven '70s?
For the characters living in them, it clearly sucks. Racecar-driver-turned-mill-worker Jason Statham not only loses his job before the end of the first reel, he loses his wife, gets framed for her murder, and winds up in a prison where warden/network executive Joan Allen rules with a frown and a severe pantsuit. (Yes, that Joan Allen, clearly having fun taking a profane break.) Turns out that Allen's prison doubles as the set of the pricey pay-per-view entertainment Death Race, wherein prisoners race in armored cars for the chance to win their freedom or die trying. Allen has lost her most popular driver, a masked man known only as "Frankenstein" (and voiced in the opening scene by Death Race 2000 star David Carradine), but she thinks Statham can wear the mask just fine, especially with some help from sage veteran Ian McShane (also clearly enjoying himself).
What follows owes as much to the Twisted Metal videogame series as any movie, with some hints that the film might turn into a smart exploration of violence and media saturation in the vein of Starship Troopers. It never happens. What does happen involves a lot of gray cars racing around a poorly defined gray environment beneath gray skies, leaving piles of spent casings in their wake. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien Vs. Predator, and a lot of films like those two) shoots for the sensory overload of a Michael Bay movie and falls short. Which, oddly enough, makes this far more tolerable than any Michael Bay movie, ideal for those who want to watch a bunch of cars blow each other up, without having to, you know, think about it all that much. It's the perfect end-of-summer film, and a sign that summer needs to end soon.