Death Race (2008)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 8/22/08
Director: Paul Anderson
Cast: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, cameo by Robin Shou

While some will argue with my praise for this film, it's exactly what the doctor ordered. Especially after being insulted and disillusioned by such crap as "The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor" (2008) and "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (2008) over the last two weeks. Fondly recalling John Carpenter's best films from the 80's, this remake of Roger Corman's "Death Race 2000" (1975) makes a spectacle of vehicular carnage by having prisoners compete in a deadly televised auto race. Former racing champion Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is framed for murdering his wife and sent to the Terminal Island Corrections Facility where the famed "Death Race" takes place. The sadistic and manipulative owner of the facility (delightfully wicked Joan Allen) coerces Ames to be her star driver, making empty promises that his success on the track will be rewarded with freedom. Ames turns out to be better and smarter than anyone suspected, and wipes out the competition while carefully plotting his revenge and escape.

This movie just made me grin from ear to ear with its heavily armored cars and thrilling crash sequences. One of the most honest and unpretentious films I've seen in a while, it never pretends to be something that it isn't, and just focuses on being a balls-out action film. The dialog is surprisingly smart, the characters are likable and believable, and the acting is refreshingly subdued, allowing the action to do most of the talking. Jason Statham does what he does best, which is being a sensitive tough guy with a troubled conscience. It's no stretch for him and he does it well. Tight lipped super-bitch Joan Allen is always wonderful to watch, and she devours her scenes with sinister delight. Natalie Martinez plays Jensen's navigator, and her combination of strength, beauty, and intensity is greatly appreciated. The strongest performance goes to Ian McShane as Jensen's coach, delivered with more feeling and confidence than a film like this probably deserves.

Of course, the film is simply an excuse for some incredibly violent car racing action, and it does not disappoint. The only criticism I can weigh against the action is that the camera tends to shake too much for my taste. Yes, it adds tension and urgency, but it makes it harder to see what's going on. Cars are gleefully and spectacularly destroyed, which is always exciting to watch. There are certainly logic flaws, inconsistencies, and impossibilities, but much like the premise of the film, it's all for the sake of entertainment. The film even has a happy ending! How cheesy is that? But it's totally awesome to see our heroes stick it to The Man (or in this case, The Woman) and come out on top, even if the delicious coup de grace is completely implausible. Great fun for anyone who grew up on B-movie action fare.