'Death Race': Film Review

This ultraviolent movie has been engineered to stimulate exactly the kind of audience blood lust that the script ostensibly deplores.

The new Death Race, loosely based on 1975's cult favorite Death Race 2000, imagines a time in the not-so-distant future when sensation-hungry audiences tune in to watch violent demolition derbies in which convicts in race cars smash and maul one another. The future already is here.

This ultraviolent movie has been engineered to stimulate exactly the kind of audience blood lust that the script ostensibly deplores. Young males will lap up the gore, though the movie won't reach beyond the core audience of car nuts and action freaks.

Once upon a time, producer Roger Corman and director Paul Bartel made a campy B movie that reveled in violence but also had a sense of humor. Most of the comedy is missing from this more realistic remake, which begins at full blast with the obligatory frenetic cutting and deafening sound effects.

The script by director Paul W.S. Anderson quickly sets up the premise: Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to a maximum-security prison, where the devious warden (Joan Allen) offers him a chance at freedom if he wins the death race against the prison's most sadistic killers. Of course, she has no intention of honoring her pledge, but she underestimates Ames, who knows how to kick butt as well as burn rubber.

The best you can say about the movie is that it isn't boring. It's fast-paced, but it isn't really well made. Like so many contemporary directors, Anderson pumps up the volume and edits with a machete to disguise the fact that he can't stage a complicated action scene with visual clarity. (Or is it the studio bosses who mandate all this frantic cutting, fearing that audiences will tune out of a chase scene that isn't sliced and diced to a fare-thee-well?)

The cast is a little tonier than you usually find in such programrs. Ian McShane is entertaining as the worldly driving coach. Allen seems to be channeling Nurse Ratched; she's a cool, smiling cobra. One hopes she was well paid for this slumming expedition. As for Statham, his body (frequently exposed) is fearsome, and he confidently struts through the picture.

The level of violence is consistently revolting. An end title sanctimoniously advises viewers not to try to duplicate the movie's "dangerous" driving scenes. This cautionary note, pretending to a moral vision that the rest of the film blithely scorns, is laughable.

Production: Relativity Media, Impact Pictures. Cast: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Vargas. Director-screenwriter: Paul W.S. Anderson. Producers: Jeremy Bolt, Paul W. S. Anderson, Paula Wagner. Executive producers: Roger Corman, Dennis E. Jones, Don Granger, Ryan Kavanaugh. Director of photography: Scott Kevan. Production designer: Paul Denham Austerberry. Music: Paul Haslinger. Costume designer: Gregory Mah. Editor: Niven Howie.

Opens Friday, Aug. 22 (Universal)