Death Race is a 2008 American dystopian action thriller film written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. It stars Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, and Joan Allen. The premise is straightforward – in 2012, the collapse of the US economy and the subsequent increase in crime rates leads to the rise of privatized prisons. One such prison is Terminal Island Penitentiary, whose warden, Claire Hennessey, earns profits from broadcasting “Death Race”, a vehicular combat racing series (a kind of vehicular gladiator combat), on the internet. Throughout the season, Terminal Island inmates battle each other in specially modified cars on a track cut into the grounds, with the goal of winning their freedom.
One racer, who has achieved a cult-like status – Frankenstein – a masked racer who has won 4 out of the 5 races needed to gain his freedom and has to wear a mask as his face is disfigured from the numerous crashes he has been in, is nearing the finish line, pursued by his rival Machine Gun Joe. His navigator, Case, reports that all of his defensive equipment has malfunctioned. Against her protests, Frankenstein refuses to let Joe finish first. Case ejects herself out of the car just before Joe destroys it as it crosses the finish line. Meanwhile, industrial worker and ex-con Jensen Ames ( played by a dour and tough Jason Statham) struggles to support his family. When the steel mill he works at is closed, he returns home to his wife Suzy and their new-born daughter, Piper. A masked assailant knocks him unconscious. Jensen wakes up with a bloodied knife in his hand, Suzy dead nearby, and policemen storming into his home and arresting him. He is sentenced to life imprisonment, while Piper is placed in foster care. His last memory of the assailant is when the assailant showed him the finger gun before leaving.
Six months later, Jensen is transferred to Terminal Island Prison. Hennessey’s right-hand man Ulrich calls Jensen to her office. She tells him that Frankenstein had died from the injuries he received at the end of the previous race, and offers to let Jensen go free if he drives Frankenstein’s car to win one more race. Jensen accepts the offer and meets Frankenstein’s maintenance crew consisting of Coach, Gunner, and Lists; they explain to Jensen that Hennessey wants him to become Frankenstein to rebuild the profits and audience of “Death Race“, which has halved since Frankenstein’s “disappearance“.
On the first day of the three day race, Jensen meets Case (a model playing a prisoner and succeeding at neither). During the race his vehicle’s defensive equipment again mysteriously malfunctions. Jensen is distracted and blindsided by Joe when he sees Pachenko perform the same finger gun gesture at him as the masked assailant, causing Jensen to realize it was Pachenko who killed his wife. Jensen confronts Pachenko and attacks him after the race – prompting Pachenko to admit Hennessey ordered him to frame Jensen, so she can have a replacement for Frankenstein. On the second day, Jensen threatens to eject Case unless she tells the truth about the malfunctions. Case admits she sabotaged Frankenstein’s car to keep him from winning and leaving Death Race, in exchange for her release papers.
Jensen then makes Pachenko’s car slam head-on into a concrete barrier, and exits the car to break Pachenko’s neck. He and Joe then collaborate to destroy a multi-weapon tanker truck added to boost ratings which Hennessey had unleashed to destroy the remaining drivers. By the end of the second race day, all racers except Jensen and Joe are killed. Hennessey orders Ulrich to plant a bomb underneath Jensen’s car in case he wins, knowing she can always find another person to impersonate Frankenstein. Jensen, who has realized Hennessey never intended to let anyone win their freedom from the start, approaches Joe after the race, suggesting they talk.
On the final race, Jensen and Joe collaborate again, destroying and driving through a weakened wall. Hennessey activates the bomb, not knowing it was removed and disassembled by Coach. She orders helicopters to pursue, though Jensen jumps out of the car as Case takes his place. Case is captured while Joe and Jensen escape on a freight train. Hennessey later opens a present sent due to record-breaking ratings, finding it to be the bomb she planted on Jensen’s car. Coach detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey and Ulrich. Six months “and 2000 miles later“, Joe and Jensen, reunited with Piper, are shown working in Mexico as mechanics, and are soon reunited with Case. End of story. Not much in there? Well there isn’t supposed to be – it’s a Jason Statham movie. It however gives you a lot of blood and guts thrown up on screen, hot women prisoners who seem to have gone from Love Island to a prison bus and a lot of fist-fights and excellent car-on-car action.
Death Race is not a movie you analyze – it is a movie you watch after a stressful day at work and your brain literally wants to rest but it’s too early to sleep. The plot is thin and the characters even thinner but it is a decent B+ entertainer. Jason Statham may never win an Oscar but if there was an award for a great action star, he would be there at the top. Death Race is what would happen if Fast & Furious came with a A rating before all the “La Familia” shit that Vin Diesel spews.
Jason Statham entertains in this no-hold’s barred prison car race and paves the way for multiple direct-to-DVD sequels. Don’t watch the dreadful sequels but take a chance on this one.