We have, it must be said, been a little dismissive of Jason Staaaathaaaaam over the years. That cockney drawl, the gruff "I’m hard, me" persona, the run of identikit action movies … it’s not been the highest quality career. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The boy done good — indeed, the boy continue to, er, done good. His films get released, make money, and he’s carved out a niche. And, in this 15-defying update of Death Race, he’s probably just made the best dumb action movie of the year.
It’s 2012 and, in a moment of painfully accurate prescience, the US economy has collapsed (insert hummed theme from The Twilight Zone here). Life is tough for the underclass, which is where Jensen Ames now finds himself. A former NASCAR champ, he hit the skids, and ended up in prison. Now he’s trying to turn his life around with a lovely wife and a baby girl and, when the failing economy allows it, a job. Only someone has other ideas and Jensen finds himself framed for his wife’s murder. Jensen finds himself at Terminal Island, a brutal prison run by Warden Hennessey (Allen, playing very much against type) and the home of Death Race, the most popular pay-per-view sport in the country. It’s a high octane, kill-or-be-killed motor sport where inmates get the chance for freedom if they win five races. It’s slightly unlikely, because the spikes and the bullets and the flames and the missiles and the napalm mean they’ll be lucky to survive one race let alone win five.
Hennessey’s fortunately masked superstar driver Frankenstein was killed in his last race and she persuades Jensen to take his place. Frank was already on four victories so all Jensen has to do is win one more — with the help of Coach (McShane) and the gratuitous bussed-in-from-women’s-prison hot-pant wearing navigator (Martinez) — and he’ll be out. Only this being a supremely corrupt prison system, he obviously won’t. So Jensen’s going to have to pull out all the stops to survive and break free, etc, etc, ad lib to fade.It’s all very silly and utterly predictable but by the time you’ve collapsed back in your chair after 105 minutes of testosterone-fuelled action and wry one-liners, you won’t really care. It is, however, ironic that there are so many writing credits — from Anderson’s current screenplay and tweaks to the original author via the duo who adapted that for the screen — because, quite frankly, you could remove all the dialogue, replace it with growling and not necessarily lose any of the impact. This is about the stunts and the crashes and the grisly deaths and those are here by the bucketload. Death Race is a film that aims for a minimum of buttons but presses them all, hence the three star rating. As such though, it’s vying with Doomsday for the title of "best three-star film of the year".
EXTRAS ** There's an audio commentary with director Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt (we guess Staaaathaaaaam can't speak without a script) and two making-of featurettes: Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race, and Behind the Wheels: Dissecting the Stunts.