The first thing you notice about Death Race is how desaturated and gritty it is, particularly compared to the bright colors of Death Race 2000. DR2k is a cartoon, where as this remake is a comic book.
We begin establishing that Death race is a competition that happens at an island prison in a dystopian future where the economy is depressed. Jason Statham’s character is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the prison, then gets drafted to be the new star racer, Frankenstein (replacing the previous masked driver who died in the last race). Fans of Statham need not worry though, the mask isn’t on much. It comes off in the car, the prision yard and in the garage. It’s really there only to establish that he’s carrying on the legacy of the legendary racer.
In the navigator’s seat next to him is the ridiculously hot Natalie Martine. The skin tight hip hugger jeans and low cut belly shirt over a gravity defying push up bra seem out of place for prison wear. Looking at her perfect bouncy hair I think I’d be willing to go to jail just for her salon privileges.
The cars here however are not pretty. No lizard scale paint job or oversized Bowie knives here; these are down and dirty gun metal gray. All cannons and steel plating as they jockey for position and attempt to mow down their opponents with brakes and bullets. The racing action in this film sets the bar, above even more mainstream contemporaries like the Fast and the Furious. They put you in the middle of the action, a kinetic experience punctuated by violent attacks and burn outs.
Adding to the video game feel, the race way has power up panels (which look like sewer covers) that activate each car’s accessories. you can’t use that Gatling gun or your oil slick unless you’ve grabbed one of these power ups first. far from being just gimmicky, this device actually helps drive the story and ups the peril.
Death Race is one of those rare remakes that works, taking the basic concept then going it’s own direction with it. But is it a remake really? I got a nice two disc set that includes 2&3 on one disc and the first film on the other – along with a director’s commentary. According to director Paul Anderson, this is actually meant to be a prequel, showing the origins of the Death Race before it became the colorful national pastime we see in Death Race 2000. In fact, he takes it a step further, describing a part of the story that had been cut – a riot at the prison was captured by security cameras and accidentally webcast. It garnered such attention that they started having regular organized fights there, broadcast world wide, and this is what eventually evolved into the Death Race.
I like this reading. I like the idea that Death Race is part of the whole narrative, because it makes me feel less guilty about the fact that given the choice between watching Death Race and Death Race 2000….I’m going to choose this Statham film every time.