Movie Review

'Death Race' is a fast and furious rush

Jason Stratham Jason Stratham stars as a race-car driver in Paul W.S. Anderson's action-thriller "Death Race." (Takashi Seida)
By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2008
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Even when he's not adapting a video game, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Resident Evil," "Mortal Kombat") can't resist making his work feel like one. His redo of producer Roger Corman's cult campfest "Death Race 2000" lays out rules that are PlayStation-ready: Drivers pass over a lighted sword icon, and their cars' hood-mounted artillery powers up. When they pass over a shield icon, a "defensive" complement of oil, smoke, and napalm activates.

It's all good when you're making (or turning out for) a movie called "Death Race." But smartly, Anderson makes some eclectic casting choices that keep the story from feeling as though it's populated by video-game characters, too.

Jason Statham stars as tough guy Jensen Ames, a onetime pro driver framed for his wife's murder and packed off to a near-future, corporate-run prison where brutal muscle-car racing has become a booming pay-per-view bloodsport. The competition's high priestess, heels-wearing warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), promises Ames an expedited release if he'll pose as "Frankenstein" (David Carradine's character in the original) - a masked driver who, unbeknownst to race fans, died after a recent crash. Grudgingly, Ames dons his predecessor's Quiet Riot facepiece, and just like that, Frank's alive.

Statham and costar Tyrese Gibson, as be-grilled archrival Machine Gun Joe, look their parts, even if dramatically they're not always as nasty as they wanna be. But Ian McShane, as "Shawshank"-esque lifer Coach, handles Ames's body work and gearhead exposition with rascally crustiness, every bit as amused as you'll be that he's here. Allen, meanwhile, plays the prison matron like an HMO claims-denial exec, all entertainingly thin-lipped placidity. Just you go ahead and snicker when she says of her suspiciously providential management record, "Sometimes it's like the right hand of God is sitting on my shoulder"; she's got a pointed shotgun under her desk. Seriously.

Thanks to its character interplay, the movie doesn't drag despite taking a good 40 minutes to really rev its engines. And the racing that ensues is as loud, fast, hyper-edited, and pulverizingly destructive as the gladiatorially minded would hope. (There's no telling why the prison looks like an abandoned industrial site, but it does make for lots of steely protrusions for inmates to get brained on. You'll wince more than once, guaranteed.)

It's fitting, actually, that Anderson would want to remake Corman, never mind the tonal disparity between the two movies. Whether it's video games or "Alien vs. Predator" or "Death Race," Anderson, like Corman, gets plenty of A's for enthusiasm in his approach to B-movie schlock.

Death Race

Written and directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, and Natalie Martinez

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 89 minutes

Rated: R (strong violence and language)

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