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May 27, 2024

Review: Death Race (2008)

By Alexandra Queen

I am confused by the reviews panning Death Race (2008). I guess if you were a film critic still on a tearful and giddy high from watching Mamma Mia!, then were forced to sit through Death Race solely because a) it's a film and b) you're a critic, you might come out with a negative review. But there comes a time in most people's lives where they start to have strange feelings about cars and bad guys and explosions. And it's natural to want to explore those feelings. What the critics seem to be missing is that Death Race is a beautiful and touching story of the joy of seeing bad guys (and cars) get blowed up.

(This is not grammatical error, incidentally. If you want to see things blown up, you should probably go watch Saving Private Ryan, or Empire of the Sun or some other epic war film with deeper historical and social value. Death Race belongs to the particular genre of film where things get blowed up. Dumb it down or move along, people.)

I suppose I should expand on the plot slightly. Jason Statham plays an ex-race car driver turned working family man whose family is killed by bad guys (causing Statham to have to go blow them up). Statham is framed for the death. He winds up in a for-profit prison that makes its money via a reality TV show where prisoners in armed cars race for their freedom. Is it coincidence that Statham was an ex-driver? NOES! The warden needed a ratings boost and was willing to do anything to get it! GNARR! Vengeful mayhem ensues.

I actually got dragged to see this because my husband, John, was a fan of the original. As near as I can tell without having seen the 1975 version, the remake is less amoral and less campy. John enjoyed both versions. For you fans of the old film, I think you will appreciate the brief but heartwarming cameo (and subsequent demise) of David Carradine, however I think you'll agree that the 2008 version is not so much a remake of Death Race 2000 (but with prisoners) as it is a remake of Schwarzenegger's The Running Man (but with cars).

I loved Running Man.

I fell similarly in love with Death Race (2008).

Here is what I want from a blow-em-up movie:

  • Explosions that do something to differentiate one boom from the others.
  • Villians who have enough personality to be interesting, but are just ridiculous and repulsive enough that I'm glad to see them blowed up.
  • Clever action scenes. Apply unorthodox use of environment and equipment to blow up bad guys in ways they aren't expecting.
  • Enough plot and setting to write a short story based on the world, but not enough to write a history of it. (We're not in the mood for Dune, here, we want boom.)
  • Violence that passes the pizza test. This is a very personal threshold of tolerance. If I can't eat a piece of pizza while watching the movie, it's not my type of violence. Splorges of gore are okay if brief, but I don't want the camera to pan in and rest on it. Churning blades are okay, but please pan discretely up to a screaming face. On the other hand, if it's vehicles or buildings, I want to see every girder, bolt and nut busted in gruesome detail. You will see frequent flashes of nasty in this film, but you won't be forced to dwell on them. I ate a chili dog while viewing with no ill effects, but there were plenty of cringes and yipes.

Death Race delivered perfectly on all those counts. Some reviews I saw grumped that the plot was predictable. Yes. This was straight formula. But I didn't mind because I also prefer, in my blow-em-up movies:

  • A main character who is a good guy and a badass.
  • Supporting characters who can be charming without wasting too much time on character development. (A gaping flaw in Cloverfield and Tarantino's Death Proof. Snore! If I wanted character development I'd be watching WALL*E.)
  • A happy ending, even if slightly improbable. (Do NOT fuss at me over the "slightly improbable" in this type of film, or I'll make you go sit through Pearl Harbor.)
  • Scenes where Jason Statham is naked and gets hosed down in prison. As a woman I must say that I appreciate the producers deciding, "Gosh, Jason has put a ridiculous amount of work into his abs for this film. Let's exploit that." Wow.

Again, Death Race does not disappoint. And at this point, you know everything you need to decide if you want to see this film. You now understand those mysterious urges, and when the time is right for you to watch bad guys blow up, you'll know what to do. Enjoy Death Race for the animal that it is.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-09-01
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