Death Race (2008)

Death Race isn’t really a remake of Death Race 2000, even if that’s what it has been frequently billed as. If anything, it’s a prequel, or perhaps a reimagining, although the films feature similar premises: Both involve races that frequently result in death, and there’s a character called Frankenstein in both of them. In the first one, there was a cross-country race in which the drivers scored points by killing everything in their path. Here, they’re instructed to kill each other.

The lead is given to Jason Statham, although his strengths are barely used. When you think of Statham, you think about physically demanding roles in which he needs to beat the other people up. Here, he sits in a car and jerks from side to side a lot. He’s playing the role of Jensen Ames, a recently laid-off steelworker who gets convicted of murdering his wife even though we know it was someone else, and that he was just framed. After being incarcerated, we learn that there’s a race called “Death Race,” and if you win five of them you are released. Fan-favorite “Frankenstein” has won four already, but unfortunately died. Ames can put on a mask and be Frankenstein, win the final race, and he’ll be set free.

So, we have a basic idea, and then need to be introduced to the other racers, and the teammates of Mr. Frankenstein. The only other opponent of importance is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), as he’s the only one that gets enough screen time to be worth mention. He’s Frank’s biggest rival, and was the one that sent the old Frank to his grave. Rounding out the cast is Ian McShane as Coach, Frank’s head mechanic, Joan Allen as Hennesy, the prison warden who cares about the money she makes from the races and nothing else, and Natalie Martinez as Frank’s navigator.

You, like the in-movie audience — which apparently reaches 70 million viewers even though buying the entire PPV race costs $250, and in a downed economy, that’s likely not possible — are here for the races. Basically what you get to see are fast, armored cars driving around a track, always shooting at each other with machine guns, smokescreens, rockets, and so on. They ram each other, the actors grunt and jerk around, and eventually most of them die. A character mentions that mortality rate is 66%, but it’s a lot higher than that.

I can see the potential here. We have The Transporter racing against the guy from 2 Fast 2 Furious. Both actors have previously played very, very good drivers, and seeing them pitted against one another could be interesting. And, truth be told, there are some fun parts in Death Race. It’s just overly repetitive and too long to be wholly enjoyable.

I don’t really understand how 70 million people would want to tune into the race, for one. If Frank had won four races prior — we get a taste of the final lap of former Frank’s final race — then surely they must be getting bored. After the almost two hours that I watched, my patience was waning. And I didn’t have to spend $250 for the pleasure. They would have. Granted, they get 100 camera feeds and hopefully none of the quick-cut editing, but watching cars bang and shoot can only be so fun for so long.

I guess I just didn’t have as much fun with Death Race as would have liked. It’s a pure action film with no real big ideas, social commentary — surprisingly, actually — or drama, and I just got tired of its non-stop, unrelenting approach. It wore me down, and I started to grow tired of it. If it had given me some time to breathe, I probably wouldn’t have felt so indifferent to these races, but they all felt the same and since there wasn’t anything special about them in the first place, I eventually wanted to stop watching.

The actors are all filled with determination and bad dialogue, which goes part and parcel with this type of movie. Statham isn’t used well, even if he does get a couple of hand-to-hand fight scenes, Gibson just gets to yell a bunch, McShane barely gets any screen time, Allen is probably the highlight as our villain, and Martinez is there to look at because that drives up the ratings, the movie explains. None of the actors seemed to care all that much, nor did they even seem to be having fun.

What I liked best about Death Race was its warning it gives us before the credits roll. The races were done in an enclosed environment and you shouldn’t try to do them yourself. Apparently, shooting at other cars and driving around as fast as you can while doing so is dangerous. I can’t remember the last preposterous action movie to tell me not to try this at home, but I had to laugh for a minute after that message popped up on the screen.

Death Race is not a terribly bad movie, but it’s not as much fun as it should have been. Watching the race — the film’s supposed high point — gets boring after a while, as there is only so much shooting and banging that one can take before you realize that you’re never going to see anything different. It’s relentless, too, ensuring that you don’t get a chance to breathe, or think. It can be enjoyed, I suppose, if you’re fine with watching poorly edited racing footage for a couple of hours, but I grew tired fairly early on.

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