Remaking a movie is a tricky business. If the end result is too similar to the original product people complain about it being a rehash. But if the end result varies substantially from the original you risk irritating fans of the original (the people who are probably going to have the most interest in the remake in the first place).
Death Race 2000 wasn’t a movie crying out for a remake. Sure, it definitely feels like a movie from the 1970s but it is still perfectly watchable. There is little that could be improved by simply re-doing the film 30 years later. So it was probably a wise decision to not simply do a re-tread of the original. In giving the film such a drastic overhaul, however, they went from a fun black comedy with action elements to a run-of-the mill action movie with 2008’s Death Race.
Death Race has a relatively simple premise. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a man wrongly convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to life imprisonment. The world economy has gone into the tank and people are desperate for anything. With the prison system outsourced to corporate America, certain things have definitely changed.
Sent to Terminal Island, he’s given a shot at freedom by Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) by competing in the world’s most watched sport: Death Race. He and a number of ex-cons will race around a track with weaponized cars, seeking to be the last man standing. But things are never quite what they appear to be. But one thing is a bit puzzling.
One logistics question that kept coming up again and again was just who was paying to watch Death Race on PPV. I’m willing to accept that with a sufficient downturn of civilization, a sport where one of the main objectives is to kill off your opponents could be legalized and become quite popular (wouldn’t exactly be the first time in history). But the economy has tanked in the Death Race universe. If jobs are so scarce, and workers are struggling to make ends meet, is it really plausible that 70 million people would plunk down between $100 and $300 to watch the Death Race PPV event? I don’t care how entertaining it is, that is quite a bit a money to spend on watching a TV program.
The movie’s biggest problem is with Hennessey’s motivation. She wants Jensen to take on the role of Frankenstein so she (and the company) can take advantage of Frankenstein’s massive popularity. And yet, not only is Hennessey dead-set on ensuring Jensen loses, she even takes steps to ensure he does as poorly as possible even in the race’s first (and basically meaningless) day.
At one point in the movie, Hennessey offers Jensen a chance to assume the mantle of Frankenstein permanently. This raises the big question. Why would Hennessey go to all the trouble of framing Jensen for murder when she was going to handicap Frankenstein in such a way that he will never win? If Hennessey’s plan succeeds that means that in the long-run the fans will stop caring about Frankenstein (and his losing ways). It would have been far easier, and far more profitable, for Hennessey to hire someone to play Frankenstein. Then, if they win, just have whoever is portraying Frankenstein announce that he is staying in the races. It’s better for Hennessey, it’s better for Frankenstein, and it’s better for Death Race.
Death Race does do action well. There are some intense sequences, and some impressive stunts. If you are a fan of action, particularly vehicle-centric action, then Death Race should provide ample entertainment for you.
I was also moderately surprised by the ending. I’m not going to spoil said ending here, so I can’t go into too much detail, but the ultimate fate of a couple of the characters was unexpected. In this case, unexpected isn’t a bad thing, though.
If you are willing to block out your memories of the original, and don’t spend too much time analyzing the movie’s flawed logic, Death Race is still works as a mindless action movie. The special effects are well done, and the driving sequences are appropriately intense. And the movie’s ending works pretty well.
Death Race fails to capture the sense of fun that made Death Race 2000 great. But as an action movie it’s not bad. The frequent plot holes and logic gaps ensure it’s not a good movie either, but it’s still not a bad movie.
Presentation is one of the few areas in which Death Race is vastly superior to originalDeath Race 2000. The video is presented in 2.35:1 and the audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.
Unrated or Theatrical version – While you can choose between the two versions, there is not a lot of difference between them. The unrated version is six minutes longer, but it’s just a few little scene extensions here and there. The only notable difference is a scene where Case tries to fix a gun jam. According to the film’s commentary the scene was removed because it stretches the limits of believability that Case could be outside the car for as long as she was and not have been hit by any of the bullets flying around.
Feature Commentary with Director Paul W.S. Anderson and Producer Jeremy Bolt – A moderately interesting commentary here. As I alluded to above, it’s one of those commentaries that actually makes the movie itself more palatable (by bringing up the whole “prequel” idea).
Start Your Engines: Making a Death Race – A pretty standard behind-the-scenes featurette. Mildly interesting.
Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts – A short piece on the many car-related stunts of Death Race.
Death Race is a totally unnecessary remake that is lacking the fun of Death Race 2000. However if you take Anderson’s advice and view the movie as a prequel, it becomes a passable action movie.
Universal Studios presents Death Race. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, and Natalie Martinez. Written by Paul W.S. Anderson. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated Not Rated. Released on DVD: December 21, 2008. Available at Amazon.