There seems to be an unspoken rule, or perhaps barely whispered rule, that nothing good can happen in a movie where the introduction is written words on the screen, describing the setting for the movie. I suppose there are some exceptions to this, but overall it does seem a rather clunky tool. Well, wouldn't you know it—Death Race starts with screenfuls of text describing the setting of the movie, and it is just another thump in the clunkatron that this movie is. The ironic thing is that when the movie ended, I was fairly jazzed by it, thinking that it was a whole lot of fun. And I still think that, but if I spend more thoughts on it than that, I end up punching holes in its paper-thin and already grievously torn plot.
It's the year 2012, and the nation's economy has gone completely to pot. Lay-offs and closings are taking place across the country, and in order to save money, the federal government has given over control of its penitentiaries to for-profit corporations, who apparently have carte blanche to make money any way they see fit. The opening text also explicitly ties the setting to the fall of Rome, as unhappy citizens look to more and more outrageous entertainment to appease their financial woes. Thus is born the Death Race, where prisoners are put in armored and armed cars to race around Terminal Island penitentiary (it's a pun, see—people die there, so it is Terminal!) while millions of webcast enthusiasts pay for the pleasure of a live stream of the event, featuring hundreds of different camera angles for the mayhem that follows. So in its clumsy fashion, Death Race attempts to make a political and cultural statement, but it never gets much further in that attempt than saying "People are paying money to watch other people die!"
Enter Warden Hennessey (played by Joan Allen) whose primary responsibility is to make money. The Death Race is her baby, and she does everything she can to maximize the profit. Clearly, we are supposed to be reminded of corrupt business practices going on today. We are also told that Hennessey is a hard-ass, tough-as-nails woman, but notice my choice of words. We really don't see any indication that she's anywhere as tough as we're told, because most of the time, we only get to see her stiletto heels and her smirk. Into this world walks Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a man framed for the murder of his wife and blackmailed to participate in the Death Race by the happiness of his infant daughter. Ames is matched up with Coach (Ian McShane), the crew chief for Frankenstein, the world's favorite Death Race driver. Only, it appears Frankenstein was killed in his last race, and Hennessey can't let down the adoring fans, so Ames will be racing as Frankenstein, complete with a full mask covering his face.
And so the racing starts, and everything goes way over the top. They call it Death Race, but apparently a number of people survive the race since nearly the entire field is made up of people who have raced in the past. We are given this information when the movie airs the commercials for Death Race itself. Those commercials contain some of the funniest moments in the movie, along the lines of similar commercials in Robocop and Starship Troopers. But they aren't as funny as those examples, riding their own wave of smarmy condescension for the movie viewer (again, "People are paying money to watch other people die!"). And the fact that people survive the Death Race is the first of many plot decisions and errors that drag the movie down from the fun it promises. Why would Ames's wife's killer use such an obvious tell and then repeat it around Ames? The movie goes out of its way to let us know that Hennessey has cameras and microphones all over the prison and yet there are at least two and probably more cases of where people do things in the prison that she never gets wind of. And why, if she has shut-offs for all the cars and their weapons, does she never use them when things start to get ugly? These issues are part of what is one of my biggest pet peeves in story-telling, when supposedly smart people do really stupid things, and the story turns on that mistake.
And of course there are race scenes and car crashes. On the one hand, I'm impressed by what they pulled off without using any CGI, but at the same time, that means that they really do very little we've not seen before. But to make it zingier, we get the loud rock and rap music over top and the point-of-view jumps constantly between the drivers, the audience, and shaky-cam, sometimes making it hard to tell just what is actually going on.
Statham and McShane clearly are having a lot of fun with this movie. Allen may be as well, but her character is extremely one-dimensional and ill-used, so it's hard to tell. It also seems clear the supporting cast is having a good time too. And I admit, I did too…and then I started thinking about it. So, it ends up being a really expensive B-movie, which is okay, but it sets its expectations so much higher that it finally comes off as a disappointment.