Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 67
A framed convict attempts to earn his freedom by winning the prison’s deadly automobile races.
While Death Race doesn’t come close to action-film greatness, the film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here. The film exceeds expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth; the action is limited in scope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.
Death Race is not Shakespeare, but it never pretends to be. This is a film with a simple, tight mission: impress audiences with violent, bloody auto races wrapped in the thinnest of plots. Suprisingly, though, Death Race holds up well for its 90-minute run.
The heart of the film—check that—nearly all of the film, is its races. For the most part these are solid action sequences: creative, well executed, and entertaining. At times, however, things do get a bit repetitive. Cars zoom around the penitentiary track trying to blow each other to bits, and there are perhaps a hundred shots of guns firing and cars getting peppered with shells. But this weakness aside, there is a lot to like about the action in Death Race. Visually, the film is set a hard, metallic sheen—filled with stark blues and grays—that gives the film a rough, brutal edge to it. And make no mistake: Death Race is not a film for the kiddies. This film exalts in its R-rating. We’ve got decapitations, occasional gore, and plenty of swearing. The film moves along briskly, sparing only minimal time to establish the plot and hold the story together. Scenes are tight, well shot, and crisply edited. Visual effects are convincing and effective. Even during the short time the actors aren’t racing, they tend to be fighting with table trays, fists, and wrenches. These scenes are well executed, with the same brutal edge that runs throughout the film. To the film’s credit, most of the action sequences make sense, and advance the story in logical steps. I was a bit confused about the logic behind the rules and strategy of the first two races, but all in all, the action in Death Race is above expectations. Kudos!
While I was pleasantly surprised with the action, I did in all honestly expect that to be the only strong point of the film. I fully expected the plot to be a disaster, and for Death Race to be an illogical stream of destruction. So I was even more surprised that Death Race has a plot, and get this: it makes sense! Sure, it’s a simple, barebones story, and sure, it’s the tired and worn “family-gets-killed-and-hero-seeks-revenge” dynamic that we’ve seen over and over again. In short, Jensen Ames (played by Jason Statham)—a loving husband, doting father, and hard worker—gets framed for the murder of his wife so that he can be brought to prison to take the place of the recently deceased Frankenstein, a legendary driver in the Death Race TV show. All this happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, and before you know it the races have begun. Zoom zoom. But on the whole, for the scant time the movie spends on developing the story, it does manage to effectively set up the context for the races and help center the viewer on the main character. You find that you both like and care about Jensen Ames.
So, the action is good and the story is sufficient, so surely the acting and the script pull Death Race into the garbage heap, yes? Well, once again Death Race can surprise you. This isn’t to say that the acting is good, but it does well enough to not detract from the film. And this isn’t to say that the script is good—it isn’t—but you really don’t need much of a script for a movie that is mostly about cars going around in circles. Jason Statham will not win an Oscar for his work, which mainly consists of glaring at enemies. However, he succeeds in striking a nice balance between likability and toughness. He pulls off his limited lines with enough conviction. He gets some decent help from the supporting actors. In particular, Joan Allen does a respectable job as the prison’s evil warden, and Ian McShane puts a nice soft spin on Coach, one of Jensen’s car crew. Dragging down the film’s acting are the lifeless Natalie Martinez, who plays Jensen’s co-pilot, and the wooden Tyrese Gibson, who plays Jensen’s arch rival on the racecourse.
As dull as Martinez’s acting is, she is not necessarily a bad choice for her role. She is a voluptuous Selma Hayek look-alike who manages to hold up the babe rating of Death Race on her own. For eye candy from the male side of the cast, Jason Statham is clearly in amazing shape, but ends up average overall with his bland face. The rest of the male cast is decent enough to put the film into the positive.
As decent as all the elements in Death Race are, however, the film doesn’t come close to action-film greatness. The film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here, and the film exceeded my expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth and the action is limited in scope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.
The movie was filmed in only 50 days.
Consistent Premise: 67
Body Count: 53
Special Effects: 81
[tags]Death Race, movie review, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane[/tags]