Lowdown: Reality TV creates a Mad Max like world inside a prison.
Our Jason Statham festival is continuing with Death Race (and there is still Transporter 3 to go!). This time around, our old pal Statham lives in a near future world where crime rates have reached such sky high levels, probably almost as high as contemporary USA levels, that prisons have been turned into private enterprises and the prisoners themselves are but a commodity. Like all good private enterprises, the prisons seek to make money; and what better way is there to create money than to come up with a reality TV show with an edge? The theme of choice is a car race between prisoners: win it as a driver five times and you’re free; the only problem is, your competitor drivers will stop at nothing, including killing, to get there ahead of you. In order to achieve the killing the cars are heavily armed and the tracks are booby-trapped; hence the Death Race.
Where does Statham fit the picture? He’s an ex racing driver, retired following a brush with the law. Nowadays he’s hard working at a factory, only the factory just closed down to commemorate the beginning of the film and money is hard to come by. Things are made worse when his wife is murdered in front of him, he is pinned with the blame, and his baby daughter is given away to foster parents.
Thus our Statham finds himself in our prison with a choice: replace a popular masked driver that died after winning his fourth race (and pretend to be him by wearing the same mask) or rot in jail. Circumstances don’t leave Statham with much of a choice: The warden wants him driving to maintain TV ratings. It turns out the warden had wanted him so bad she might have just arranged Statham being in jail in the first place. And all he needs to do is win his first race!
But all of that doesn’t really matter because in the grand scheme of things this is all about the race itself. Death Race is car racing action, Road Warrior style, with some basic plot elements wrapped up in between to seal the edges off. They just manage to provide basic sealing, because there are so many things that don’t make sense with Death Race, but – and that’s one great but – it doesn’t matter because of the action.
Oh, the action! I find it hard to recall action scenes as visceral as Death Race’s. People die brutally, they die often, and they die right in front of our eyes; Death Race is no kids’ film. People and settings look brutal and frightening; there is more than a passing resemblance between the car races and the Mad Max world of The Road Warrior, especially given Statham’s hockey like mask that resembles the Road Warrior’s chief villain. But first and foremost, this is about cars coming into early demise in very creative ways; and lucky for us, this is all done clearly in front of our eyes. There are only a few scenes in the beginning where the camera shakes and we don’t know what’s happening; the rest is the way action should be shot. Everything just looks real and authentic! I was very much unable to detect traces of CGI. The result is just awesome – a stupid film, yet a kick ass one.
Silliest scene: Given the dominance of male hormones in Death Race, cars had to be supplemented by chicks to add that extra nitro boost. While there is no nudity and there are no sex scenes (shame!), the moviemakers have thought of an ingenious way to introduce the beautiful sex into the male prison: our race car drivers have navigators from a neighboring female prison. Them navigators all look good, and they’re all dressed in a manner that would make the audience think female prison uniforms are more minimal than beachwear. It’s all very silly, but it fits the general atmosphere of the film.
Technical assessment: The picture and the sound are not the best Blu-ray can deliver, but I wouldn’t want to watch Death Race any other way. The sound, in particular, is a blast. As is the overall experience…
Overall: An authentic Jason Statham film. 3.5 out of 5 stars.