Death Race 2000 was directed with wit and campy energy by Paul Bartel (who also did Eating Raoul ), and it was a classic Corman B-movie made for about $300,000. It also boasted David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone. The very low budgetness of the film gave it much of its appeal as you marvel at what can be done with so little, and sometime laugh at the results. But Death Race 2008 with a budget probably 100 times that original amount can't hide its flaws behind B-movie charms. I mean this film has Tom Cruise as one of its producers and a major Hollywood studio - Universal - behind it. So no points for being an underdog, or a David among Goliaths. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with There Will Be Blood's Paul Thomas Anderson or Rushmore's Wes Anderson) gets to blow up lots of things on a big scale. But Anderson (who also gets the solo writing credit) can disguise the fact that his film is essentially about a bunch of guys driving in circles.
Tyrese Gibson, Jason Statham and Ian McShane in Death Race (Universal)
The meager attempt at plot involves Jensen (Jason Statham) getting framed for his wife's murder so he can be placed in the prison of Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen with what looks like a bad facelift or maybe its just the bad dialogue that's making her look so strained). Hennessey wants Jensen, who's a skilled driver, to help her boast the ratings of her reality TV prison show Death Race . All this is set in the future when the U.S. economy is down, crime is up, prisons are not run by corporations, and people escape through the violence of reality shows like Death Race. The action is big and noisy but lacks real tension or flair. The races are handled with workman like craft but are shot with such in-close shakycam style that you can barely tell what the action is all about and who's beating whom on the track.
Anderson directs with dry seriousness, and he lacks the skill to make the action really kick ass. He could have used some of Mad Max director George Miller's savvy with cars to spice things up. Miller always seemed to know where to put the camera for maximum effect. In the Mad Max films we felt the speed, the intensity of the drivers, the closeness of the cars, and the potential danger of any maneuvers. Anderson has worked in but not excelled at action in films such as Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, AVP and his British debut Shopping . So he doesn't seem fully invested in the action here, it's as if he's painting by numbers. You don't get the sense of kinetic joy that so many Asian action films revel in or the emotional investment found in well-made action thrillers like the recent The Bourne Identity or Inside Man. So if you don't care that much about the characters and the action is by the book, the film can only marginally hold your interest.
Jason Statham as Jensen in Death Race (Universal)
Statham could do this role in his sleep and that's what he essentially does here. He plays the laconic anti-hero with tight-assed solemnity. His Jensen is cool under pressure and hardly ever cracks a smile. He obviously doesn't have time for such crap. This is a role he's performed much better in films such as The Transporter series (number three coming out later this year). (One funny side note: check out the police photo they take of Jensen which places his height at 6 feet, a cheat of about three or four inches for Statham.) Ian McShane (of Deadwood fame) is wasted as the prison old-timer who teaches Jensen the ropes. And Tyrese Gibson is oddly cast as a supposedly gay inmate driver whose navigator keeps getting killed. But it's unclear if he's really supposed to be gay or if that's a joke. Either way the part is ill conceived. Natalie Martinez is the hot young thing and she offers formula sexiness. She's presented to us as a kind of Michelle Rodriguez but without the attitude. And this film is just cryin gout for a clever cameo by Carradine or Stallone.
Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death Race (Universal)
Death Race (R for strong violence and language) does nothing to improve on the original except perhaps to raise the production values. This is bland formula all the way. But you do get to see Jason Statham naked and for some people at the screening, that seemed to compensate for the film's shortcomings.
Companion viewing: The Transporter, Death Race 2000, Escape From New York