In movies like The Bank Job, Jason Statham has shown the potential to be a British Steve McQueen, but he'll never get the chance if he keeps making gobblers like Death Race. It's strictly a smash-and-grab variation on the campy 1975 cult hit Death Race 2000, this time setting a souped-up destruction-derby auto race, played to the death, on the grounds of Terminal Island, a prison for extreme violent offenders.
"This had action right from the beginning," I heard one satisfied viewer say on the way out. Actually, most of the time it only has an illusion of action. The writer-director, Paul W.S. Anderson, is so intent on "cutting to the chase," he cuts everything out of the chase that could make it compelling.
He's the Captain Crunch of filmmakers. He stages and edits the three-stage Death Race for such a cavalcade of immediate, visceral effects, the movie becomes an animated tapestry of bent metal, shredded flesh and spurting blood. It never gives you the thrill of feeling behind the wheel in a credible race.
The single time it wins applause and cheers for an action moment comes when it leaves its mundane brutality behind and depicts two of its armored race vehicles setting and executing a trap for a monstrous motorized dreadnought. Audiences clap as if they've seen St. George kill his dragon. Of course, the heroes in this movie are not saints.
It's 2012, and prisons are not just privately owned, but are also one of the few growth industries in a deteriorating economy and a collapsing social system. Terminal Island's warden, Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen), who came up with the idea of putting gladiatorial contests on wheels, has turned the Web-casting of Death Race into a cash cow. She dubs her most popular racer "Frankenstein" because he wears a hideous mask to cover supposedly mutilated, stitched-together features.
Actually, the mask is the man: Hennessey simply replaces the drivers under it. Statham, as an ex-con and former automotive hot shot named Jensen Ames, becomes Hennessey's latest and most reluctant Frankenstein.
He soon figures out that Hennessey had his wife killed, then framed him for it, just so she could bring Ames to Terminal Island and keep Frankenstein going as a franchise player.
Ames spends the rest of the movie plotting to get his revenge, make his escape and seize his little daughter back from her new foster parents.
As a writer and director, Anderson appears to think that colorful monickers and gimmicks can pass for characterization: Ian McShane is only known as "Coach" - he's the wise old head of Frankenstein's race team - and voluptuous Natalie Martinez plays Case, Frankenstein's unreliable navigator. Tyrene Gibson plays Machine Gun Joe, Frankenstein's viciously competitive arch-rival, and Robert LaSardo plays "Grimm," as in Grimm Reaper, who gets the most disgusting send-off.
The one plausible conflict is between Frankenstein and Hennessey, and even that is mask against mask.
Allen, with her usual ace instincts, soft-pedals Hennessey's villainy: She creates a polite, decorous sociopath. Her inflexible expressions would be more impressive if they didn't make you wonder whether she could flex her facial muscles if she wanted to. Here's hoping Allen's static Hennessey is due to an extreme acting choice and not plastic surgery. It would be tragic to lose a natural smile to star in garbage like Death Race.
Watch a preview and see more photos from Death Race at baltimoresun.com/deathrace
(Universal Pictures) Starring Jason Statham, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Rated R for strong violence and language. Time 89 minutes.