Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“Death Race” is aimed at fans of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. It’s a multi-ethnic car movie that trades on the pumped-up sexiness of its stars, one of which, that scowling peacock Tyrese Gibson, is a “F & F” regular. The movie is broadly based on the 1975 “Death Race 2000,” a gleeful live-action take on the cartoon “Wacky Races.” This version takes itself more seriously. It stakes a claim to the tradition of the prison escape drama — it’s a bit like “Brute Force” tailored to the age of Xbox. Dutifully, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson hits all the prison-movie beats, and he replaces the pop palette of the original with a steely combination of grays and blues; it’s a choice meant to communicate toughness and grit. As a satirist, however, Anderson is soft: though “Death Race” makes some stabs at spoofing corporate greed, it never misses an opportunity to flaunt its sponsors’ logos in fawning, Garbo-worthy close-up.
Anderson is a leading purveyor of the video game style of movie making. He designs movies in segments or levels, then has his characters scuttle through them like the ghosts and hungry cheese wheel from Pac-Man. This may explain why I’ve always found his work to be most satisfying at the micro level: he’s a talented stylist, one with the smarts to connect his visuals to larger themes and ideas, but his movies tend to fall apart when considered as narrative wholes. Though the screenplay for “Death Race” is a bit more persuasive than what Anderson usually comes up with, the picture sputters after the initial racing sequence. It starts to feel repetitive, and you might find your interest waning even as you’re impressed by the abundant technical wizardry.
That wizardry is most evident during the racing sequences. The editing, by Niven Howie, has a staccato lyricism, individual shots blipping into your consciousness and remaining there just long enough to inform your understanding of the following shot. Anderson is one of the few filmmakers capable of working the prevailing “shaky-cam” aesthetic into something cohesive and intelligible — to use it as more than a driver of you-are-there jitters (Olivier Megaton is another). The action in “Death Race” isn’t exactly spatially comprehensible — Anderson is more of a cutter than a camera mover — but it has a narrative and temporal connectedness that sustains rather than short circuits your involvement.
Star Jason Statham is the least conceited of action heroes; he always seems to be doing an internal double-take. Though he’s fine here — he’s playing a mystery driver who goes by the codename Frankenstein — the movie might have made better use of his gift for affable self-parody. His personality is diluted. It doesn’t help that his character is burdened with a solemn backstory revolving around the death of his wife. Like “Premium Rush,” which I wrote about back here, “Death Race” just doesn’t need that extra layer of motivation. It’s fat on the bone, and it slows everything down. As Statham’s forced partner and nemesis, the chilly prison warden Hennessey, Joan Allen makes a virtue out of dubious plastic surgery: her weirdly immobile face completes the portrait of corporate and bureaucratic soullessness. She’s a whole different sort of Frankenstein.