As the title blatantly states, Death Race is about a race…to the death. The movie is set in a hypothetical 2012 where a spike in unemployment and rise in crime result in an overflow of the prison system. So, naturally, the powers-that-be decide to go “America” on it by privatizing the prisons to run them for profit. The director (Paul W. S. Anderson) shot the film as a prequel to the 1975 film Death Race 2000 starring Sylvester Stallone.
So, how do these for-profit prisons make the profit?
At first, they use throwback Gladiator fights. But, when the desensitized population grows weary of the archaic sport, the talking heads realize they need to change things up. Hence, they initiate paid Web streams of the inmates racing each other in jacked-up, armor-clad, explosive cars. They call it DEATH RACE.
Why would the inmates risk their lives for this? Well, you can only drink so much toilet-water-vodka before your liver bleeds. But, the other reason is probably because any driver who wins five races earns his freedom.
Jason Statham plays Jensen Ames, a hardworking welder with a wife and baby who’s just trying to live his life. One fateful day, Jensen gets laid off and returns home to tell his wife the news. While he washes up in the other room, an intruder murders his wife, steals his baby, and renders him unconscious. Jensen wakes to a bloody knife in his hands and a team of police above him. He is now part of the prison system, and if he ever wants to see his baby daughter again, he’ll have to drive his way out.
It isn’t long before Jensen realizes who framed him for his wife’s murder. It’s Hennessey, the warden, slash president, slash pancake-faced witch of the prison. Her race ratings, which were dependent on a fan-favorite driver named Frankenstein, are in jeopardy. “Frank” recently died in a fiery crash, but luckily for Hennessey, he was so disfigured from OTHER fiery crashes, that he always wore a mask to cover his hideous face. This makes him easy to replace. Not wanting to lose her main money maker, Hennessey blackmails Jensen to pose as Frank in the upcoming race. Frank was one race away from his freedom, so if Jensen can complete one race for her, she’ll let him go free and give him his baby daughter back. But, in typical villain fashion, the game is secretly rigged against Jensen.
Apparently, Jensen has some background in car racing, which they casually breeze over to give at least some context to why Hennessey chose him, but we never really get the full story on that.
Jensen now finds himself deep in the underground world of prison racing. He and his pit crew must make sure “Frank’s” car is supercharged with as much smoke, oil, machine guns, steel shields, bullet proof glass, and napalm to barrel through all the other drivers. Yes, napalm. This movie is not messing around with the explosives. Meanwhile, the prison ships in some female inmates to serve as the eye candy co-pilots.
I’m not going to try to convince you that Death Race is some sort of Academy Award nominee. Especially by today’s standards, the sexist and homophobic undertones are a little much, but I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining. It has all the major components of a great action film:
- Insane cars
- Body tattoos
- Aggressive rock and rap music
- Male co-stars with masculinity issues
- Objectification of every woman
- Overly exaggerated explosions
- Machine guns that are way too large NOT to be compensating for something
Death Race is a delightfully virile thrill ride with a couple of surprises along the way. Jason Statham’s dry humor and fierce staredowns are at it again, maintaining his persona of a likeable, sarcastic, muscle tower.
I’m pretty sure they made a plethora of sequels to this movie, but I never saw them. Once you’ve seen the Death Race, no other race will do.