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Death Race Review – Despite Some High-Octane Thrills, This Remake Is Stuck in First Gear

Death Race Review – Despite Some High-Octane Thrills, This Remake Is Stuck in First Gear” width=”560″/>

Like the 1975 cult fave it’s based on, the revamped Death Race is an unabashed B-movie. (How could it be anything else with Roger Corman as a producer?) Yet unlike its predecessor — the scrappy, indie satire Escape From New York , The Shawshank Redemption and The Running Man . In fact, in many ways, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson’s flick seems more like a remake of the Stephen King-Schwarzenegger actioner than Paul Bartel’s campy classic.

The initial setup mirrors the 1975 film: In the not-so-distant future, the economy collapses, a fascist government emerges and the unwashed masses crave the escape and excitement of gladiatorial combat. And so the Death Race is born. But unlike the original, which featured a cross-country competition in which anyone, including spectators, could end up slaughtered, this time around the contestants are inmates in a maximum security prison competing for their freedom.

This change takes all the bite out of the premise. There’s a classic
scene in the original, in which nurses push wheelchair-bound patients
onto the track for the racers to kill — old people are worth more points, you see. It’s dark
and it’s awful and it’s funny, and it makes the viewers as culpable as
the drivers. In the remake, the event is televised as an overpriced
pay-per-view, so we never see the common man getting off on the gore.

Our hero is former racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a hardened
criminal turned honest working family man who has been framed for
murdering his wife. The tough-as-ice pick warden
Hennessey — three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen, channeling Hillary
Clinton — makes the incarcerated Ames an offer he can’t refuse: Win one race, and win
his freedom. Of course there’s a catch: He’ll have to don the mask of
Frankenstein, the prison’s legendary driver and ratings draw, who
secretly died while crossing his last finish line.

Ames is given a comedy relief pit crew — stuttering geek Frederick Koehler, wisecracking Jacob Vargas and Deadwood‘s
Ian McShane, who makes the most of his clunky one-liners. Tyrese Gibson plays the
racetrack nemesis, but Hennessey is the real villain. She’s every evil
rolled into one: A lying politician, a greedy corporate sleazebag and a
sadistic, cold-hearted bitch. Too bad her inevitable demise is
decidedly anticlimactic.

All this said, Death Race does
deliver some dumb thrills. Ladies (and a couple of men) actually
applauded when a shirtless Statham did push-ups in his cell, and the
female navigators, especially the comely Natalie Martinez, are also
high-calorie eye candy. And then there’s the action which, though often
incoherent, will raise your heart rate. So it’s really about
expectations. In the mood to cheer at a graphic decapitation shown from
three different angles? Go buy a ticket. Looking for something more subtle? Get back into your car and drive away… fast.  

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