Paul W.S. Anderson | 98 mins* | TV (HD) | 15 / R
Sometimes, I wonder what I’m playing at. The list of films I haven’t seen but really should is quite extraordinary, from enduring classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai to recent praise-magnets like Scott Pilgrim and Black Swan (and those are just from some of the ones I actually own), yet I choose to spend my evening watching B-movie tosh like Death Race because it happens to be on telly.
There’s no denying that Death Race is B-movie tosh, I don’t think, but at least it’s an example of fairly entertaining B-movie tosh. The plot barely matters, but for what it’s worth it concerns a car race in a near-future prison where those who don’t die in the weapons-laden encounters stand a chance to earn their freedom. Jason Statham’s character is — of course — innocent, but once thrown into this world must escape by its rules. Yadda yadda yadda.
Basically, everything that happens is an excuse to get to some action sequences, in which cars race around a circuit and attempt to destroy each other in some moderately creative ways. It caters perfectly to its intended audience: there’s fast cars, sexy girls, lots of action, big explosions. It doesn’t always make sense — those sexy girls are really shoehorned in — but that doesn’t really matter. It’s Entertainment, for a certain type of person, and it surely hits all the points it should hit. And I expect it says something about that intended audience that the end credits begin with a “do not attempt this at home” notice.
Ian McShane is the most watchable out of an adequate cast. Who would’ve guessed Lovejoy would end up as a consistently entertaining presence in various US productions? Only the villains really get short shrift, being so readily defeated that there’s no real jeopardy, no sense they might not get their comeuppance. Their simultaneous best and worst moment comes in a dreadful, meaningless line about shitting on the sidewalk. Who doesn’t love a good “wtf?” bit of dialogue?
You can tell writer-director Anderson likes his computer games — as if the numerous films he’s made based on them weren’t enough, he brings their influence here too. For instance, the weapons are only activated by driving over special hotspots, which are only a big floating icon away from being like computer game power-ups. I’m surprised Anderson didn’t go the whole hog and have them be projected holograms.
Even if it’s all about the action, it could be worse: I’ve seen plenty of films featuring weaker dialogue, weaker acting and an even less relevant story. Death Race does everything it sets out to do competently, delivering a couple of decent action sequences and even a couple of laughs along the way. Not exceptional enough to be particularly memorable, but it is fun — if you like this kind of thing — while it lasts.
* I know it’s largely immaterial, but I’m not really sure how long the version I watched ran. It was definitely the theatrical version (as opposed to the extended version, which looks to contain several minutes of unnoticeable additions and tweaks), which IMDb say runs 98 minutes, but the BBFC place at 105. I’ve used IMDb’s answer purely because as I watched it on TV it would’ve been PAL, so this number is closer, whatever the truth.