Excise the most entertaining elements from Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000—its everything-that-sticks satire of professional sports, the media, American bloodlust and treacherous government—and what you get is Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, a stripped down version of its 1975 cult classic source material that primarily has sadistic action on its mind. For purists, this bastardization of an all-time low-budget great will surely approximate blasphemy. Yet overlooking not only the simplistic idiocy of its screenplay (in which a man can be equally fit for breaking necks and cradling infants) but also Anderson’s generally sub-par track record (the original Resident Evil being the exception), this updated Death Race comes off as less an unforgiveable desecration than simply a serviceable, forgettable genre film marked by leaden performances, even more leaden dialogue, a few sterlingly gruesome images, and a supremely campy performance from Joan Allen.
In 2012, America is in economic ruin and overrun with crime, and the most popular television program is Death Race, a lethal competition staged at industrial über-prison Terminal Island—a greedy, privatized corporate behemoth—in which crazed inmates compete against one another for pride, glory and freedom. Anderson barely bothers with the TV broadcasts (or pay-per-view webcasts) or with any fascistic symbolism, and he’s far too busy stoking his audience’s appetite for carnage to deliver any critique of violence. Furthermore, though his two protagonists go by the monikers Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe, there’s little else that ties them to their predecessors, as Anderson’s story borrows as much from The Longest Yard and The Running Man as it does from Corman’s original, his narrative concerning a former convict-turned-family-man named Jensen Ames (Statham) who’s framed for murdering his wife and tossed into Terminal Island, where warden Hennessey (Allen) forces him to race as the legendary masked hero Frankenstein.
There’s a promise of liberation for Jensen if one more contest is won, but any plot-related talk is just so much blather taking up time in between Anderson’s visually jumbled yet viscerally nasty sequences of automotive mayhem, which benefit from sideline commentary by Ian McShane’s grizzled Coach and the participation of Natalie Martinez’s token sexpot. If an empty, and empty-headed, late-summer throwaway, Death Race nonetheless has a single-minded dedication to skuzzy thrills, which—like Statham’s typically muscular turn—prove crude, unsubtle and, as often as not, also pleasurably vicious. Speaking of which, Allen’s over-the-top cold-bitch routine is a thing of malicious B-movie beauty, highlighted by her attempt to convince (to her mind, the parentally unsuitable) Jensen to willingly stay in prison and let his newborn child live with foster parents because “it would be the most unselfish act of love I’ve ever seen,” an argument that ranks right up there with the least convincing ever made.