The most astonishing thing about "Death Race," a crash-bang action movie otherwise wholly free of astonishment, or even much passing interest, is the presence in its cast of Joan Allen. And apart from the fact that she's actually in this damn thing — togged out in exactly the sort of dark, tailored suits she wears in the "Bourne" movies — she is also called upon to utter the most baffling line in any recent film. I'm sure you can make it out through the scrim of dashes: "OK, co------ers, f--- with me, and we'll see who sh--s on the sidewalk." This from an actress who's been nominated for three Academy Awards.
If I tell you that "Death Race" was directed by genial schlock purveyor Paul W.S. Anderson, the man who cluttered the world with "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" and "Resident Evil," that may be all you need to know about this dismal flick. But let's press on anyway.
The movie is set in a hell-hole prison — it looks like a vast abandoned foundry — that houses (what else?) "the worst of the worst": murderers, rapists, personal-injury lawyers, what have you. And Allen's character, Hennessey, is the warden of this place — or as one lowlife puts it, watching her walking to work right through all the scumbags, "the baddest ass in the yard." She also presides over an event called Death Race, a sort of armored NASCAR tourney in which the fearsome autos are equipped with all manner of cannons, flamethrowers, even napalm, and driven by guys with handles like Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson, looking very 50 Cent) and the Grimm Reaper (Robert LaSardo).
Death Race is beamed out worldwide on the Internet; it's wildly popular, and Hennessey gets hot watching the site hits click up into the multimillions. There's a problem, though: Her reigning champion, a mysterious subhuman called Frankenstein, grievously banged-up in the last Death Race, has secretly died of his injuries. Fortunately, since Frankenstein always wore a scary metal mask and never spoke, he can easily be replaced — and Hennessey has just the man for that purpose: a real-world racing star named Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), who was framed for the murder of his wife and now resides in Hennessey's nightmarish lockup. Ames is persuaded to get behind the mask and is paired with a hot female "navigator" (don't ask) named Case (Natalie Martinez). Before you can say "cue mayhem," the Death Race is back underway.
Statham, the English Vin Diesel, does most of his acting with his brow muscles, which may over-qualify him for this picture. He glowers and broods, beats and gets beaten, while all around him tank-like hot rods go screaming through the bullet-filled air and buying the farm in billowing fireballs. Once upon a time, car chases were a highlight of any serious action movie (come back, George Miller!); here they are its entire substance, which will make "Death Race" a source of fascination mainly for those who've never seen one.
The movie is notionally based on that '70s grindhouse classic, "Death Race 2000," which starred David Carradine and the pre-"Rocky" Sylvester Stallone. But that film had elements of satire and gobbets of humor amid the carnage. "Death Race," with its leeched color, is grim and laughless, and Anderson pushes his stuttery cameras so close-in to the action that it's often a strain to discern what exactly is going on. Or, if it need be said, to care.
Check out everything we've got on "Death Race."
Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The House Bunny," "The Rocker" and "Hamlet 2," also new in theaters this week.