An orgy of vehicular carnage, "Death Race" doesn't pretend to be more than it is - an arcade game inspired excuse for some automotive smash ups. Like a monster car rally without a Truckosaurus in sight, this is more about the smashes and crashes than the vehicles themselves.
Thankfully bearing little relation to Roger Corman's more inspired cross-country 1975 original, the new "Death Race" restricts the setting to a grimy looking East Coast prison on an island of abandoned warehouses and refineries. The loose set up has prisoners competing in several brutal races with the winner earning freedom. Included are the usual staples starting with a hero wrongly accused of a crime and sent to prison and a gruff but kindly old mechanic who serves as mentor. Add to that is an ice cold warden, various criminals of differing ethnic backgrounds who serve as cannon fodder for whitey, and some "Running Man" style satire of violence for entertainment. Of course Director Paul W.S. Anderson wants to add some personal touches to make his work not look like it has been entirely lifted from other films. These additions however often prove unintentionally comical whether it be getting a star of Joan Allen's caliber to play the warden or having a track littered with "Super Mario Kart" style power-up plates which activate defense guns and bobby traps. Yet when it comes to the bread-and-butter of the film - the races - Anderson's stuff kind of works. Rather than making the races about who gets to the finish line first, here it is all about the crashes - how each of the various competitors gets crushed, splattered or blown-up in often very wet and graphic ways. Despite the dourness of everyone involved, it's not material that can be taken seriously at all and on a comical level, these scenes at least have an energy and slightly morbid if brain dead sense of fun. Unfortunately there is the thread-bare plot and characters to deal with in the interim that often drags down the pacing with predictable and poorly fleshed out roles and dialogue. For Statham, this kind of B-movie material is his bread and butter, and so he's perfectly fine for what the role demands. In this case it means showing off his quite incredible upper-back musculature, looking stern either behind a wheel, and beating up fellow inmates wanting to slip a shiv (or something else) into his flesh. Tyrese again is also suited for this material as our hero's main rival, and has one of the more confusing elements of the project - his 'Machine Gun Joe' character is gay. Normally actors in this material would use that as an excuse to camp it up, but Gibson plays it like any other character which seems surprisingly respectful. Yet short of the odd derogatory remark, it's easy to figure out that the sole reason for this character trait is so he can brutally kill off his navigators without being seen as misogynist. All the other cars have busty Latina navigators except Tyrese who only gets wimpy male grunts. The great Ian McShane is there to deliver lines and collect a paycheck, nothing more. It is a shame that his talent is wasted in the likes of this, but with his gritty British crime drama background he does seem suited for the material - a kind of oil-covered Q to Statham's meat-headed James Bond. Joan Allen on the other hand seems very out of place, though is obviously enjoying herself as the icy warden of the film who gets away with all sorts of crazy stuff. If nothing else it's her few moments of swearing like a sailor that will remain in your memory long after everything else has vanished.
Much like the cars themselves, this is not a pretty picture. Director Paul W.S. Anderson shoots in that shaky camera, desaturated, high grain and high contrast look that every not so talented cinematographer these days think screams "gritty realism" when all it does scream is 'cheap'. Music is the standard thumping hip-hop tedium with lots of bass combined with barely intelligible dialogue about pussy and handguns.
The inherent homo-erotic sexual tension that comes between two male leads in all these overly-macho movies from "Fight Club" to "Bad Boys" is readily apparent and gets more blatant as the film goes on. This gives the Mexico-set coda a lot more interesting sub-text than usual (there is a girl there but she looks to be serving more as a nanny or maid than anything else). Too dull and generic to be a camp classic in spite of its unintentional hilarity at times, this is one vehicle that stalled before it even got to the starting line. That said, it may be Anderson's best work to date.