Short, mean and noisy, "Death Race" is a sure signal that the blockbuster season is over, and it's time to settle back in our seats and let the B flicks drive for a while.
Inspired by the 1975 cheesefest "Death Race 2000," this vehicle for action star Jason Statham offers the kind of scenario that kids in the '60s used to invent over their Hot Wheels sets, fantasies of exploding cars and souped-up vehicles bristling with weapons. If we'd had writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson's budget back then, we'd probably have thrown in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, too — but that omission is about the only thing separating Anderson's work from the inspiration of sugar-happy 10-year-olds.
Anderson has laid the action just a few years into the future, positing a devastating financial collapse that's resulted in a lot of people being out of work and institutions such as the prison system being completely taken over by private corporations. Out of this situation has arisen the Death Race, a hugely popular pay-per-view television event in which convicts race each other to the death in cars and trucks that have been tricked out like 007's Aston Martin.
Enter one Jensen Ames (Statham), a former professional driver who's been framed for the murder of his wife and sentenced to life in Terminal Island Penitentiary, home of the Race. It isn't long before he's brought up before Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen), who offers him a deal: If he will impersonate the popular (and recently, secretly, deceased) driver Frankenstein in the Race, he can win his freedom with just one victory. Desperate to be reunited with his infant daughter, Ames accepts.
With that brief nod to characterization out of the way, the rest of the movie is pretty much about driving really fast and firing highcaliber machine guns at the other drivers — cardboard cutouts one and all, most of them onscreen just long enough to pad the running time before they get scragged and the next clay pigeon takes his turn behind the wheel. The mayhem is shot well enough, with a couple of splattery gross-out moments to please the obvious target audience. But it doesn't take long for the realization to set in that, yes, this is pretty much all there is. If you like this kind of thing, as they say, here's more of the thing you like.
Statham hands in his usual performance as an intense (but good-hearted) Brit, the kind of don't-tread-on-me guy who's so tough that even his stubble doesn't dare tick him off by growing past the two-day limit. He's believable within the limits of the role, but there's nothing here to challenge him — certainly not Allen's by-the-numbers turn as a stock corporate villain for whom human lives mean nothing but entries on a balance sheet.
You don't want to think too much about this movie. You don't want to question how the Death Race can get 50,000,000 hits on pay-per-view at $250 a pop if everybody's out of work. You don't want to ask how these cars can defy the laws of physics on a regular basis, or why it is that nobody onscreen can guess what's going to happen next when the rest of us find it all so predictable.
For those looking for mindless violent entertainment, it's just about good enough to fill the bill. But they did miss a bet by leaving out Sgt. Fury.
Jason Statham, Joan AllenTheater:
Southroads 20, Cinemark Tulsa, Starworld 20, Eton Square, Riverwalk, OwassoRunning time:
one hour, 29 minutesRated:
R (strong violence and language)Quality:
**(on a scale of zero to four stars)
James Vance 581-8372