If you’re of a certain age – and quite possibly even if you’re not – Death Race 2000 holds a certain place in your heart. It was a breath of fresh air on the drive-in circuit; it had all the car chase action and boobs that the R rating promised but it was also funny and subversive, much more than the simplistic action flick we had expected.
Given Hollywood’s current inclination to remake anything from the 60s-80s that had been even moderately successful, it’s no surprise that Death Race 2000 eventually found itself being updated and, um, grittified (especially since the year 2000 has come and gone), but sadly it is similarly unsurprising that the new version lacks everything that made its progenitor special.
Jason Statham – who has carved quite a respectable DTV niche for himself – is Jensen Ames, an ex-con framed for his wife’s murder, simply so he can be sent to the right prison and participate in the Death Race of the title – a multi-million dollar pay-per-view event in which criminals drive armored and armed vehicles on the island prison’s closed race track. Anyone winning five Death Races gets a pardon.
The Race’s most popular participant – a scarred, masked driver named Frankenstein – dies in the movie’s opening sequence, and the prison’s warden and major stakeholder in the Race (a cast-against-type… and damn good… Joan Allen) needs Frankenstein's brand recognition to keep profits up. So Ames agrees to take Frankenstein’s place in his fifth and final race – but naturally, the warden can’t really let anyone walk free…
There’s a bit of Hollywood lore that producer Roger Corman wasn’t happy that director Paul Bartel took the comedic route with the original Death Race 2000, as what he envisioned was a straightforward action movie. This new Death Race is likely far more in line with Corman’s desires. Director Paul W. S. Anderson doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and given his track record (Mortal Kombat, Alien vs Predator, Resident Evil) it’s not too surprising that this feels like a video game movie.
Now, to give Anderson his due, the car chase stuff is very well done, and done old school to boot – these ain’t CGI cars, that’s real steel hurtling around. The cast is marvelous, the aforementioned Statham and Allen, and a scene-stealing Ian McShane as Coach, the world-wise head mechanic. And those pay-per-view graphics? Sheer genius.
Not a great movie, but not a bad one, either. It fits well into the time-waster category, as the only real thing weighing against it is the question of its necessity.
The disc offers a choice between the Unrated and Rated experience via DVD’s branching capabilities, with a warning that basically, some players don’t handle it too well. The menus have a nice Pimp My Ride feel, with a bunch of quick-cut stuff from the movie that doesn’t drift into the spoiler range, as some Universal DVDs have shown a tendency.
The disc will start with previews for Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Burn After Reading, Hamlet 2, Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0 and ads for the video game Wanted: Weapons of Fate and Universal Blu-rays in general.
There are two featurettes, Start Your Engines, which is your basic making-of, and Behind the Wheel, which goes into more depth about the car scenes and stunts.
There is also a commentary track by Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt. This serves to fill in a bit of history for those of us who remember when this movie was originally announced as Death Race 3000 and why that version never happened (“it probably would have been the most expensive movie ever”). But the thing that sticks with this particular reviewer is when the original movie is mentioned, it is as “Roger Corman’s movie”. That’s the way it is in Hollywood, alas, where the producer steps up to get the Best Picture Oscar, but it still...rankles.
Dr. Freex, 5/12/2009