Medical science tells us that there's a portion of the brain called the R-complex that, nestled low and close to the spinal cord, governs simple, automatic brain functions like respiration and reflex and heart rate; other outlying, larger brain structures cover language, culture, memory and art. I mention this because Death Race, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson's re-visitation of the 1975 trash-classic Death Race 2000, is wholly, entirely and perfectly designed to appeal to the R-complex portion of your brain. Death Race roars, rages and races down the track, all velocity and visceral violence, unencumbered by logic, sense, reason or dignity. My more evolved brain structures kept objecting to Death Race's more ludicrous contortions as it whipped around its curves, but my R-complex didn't want to hear the high-pitched whining voice of logic and reason; it simply grunted, settled into a soft cushion of popcorn topping and said "Shut up, bigger brain; bald man who talk cool killing now."
Bald man who talk cool -- who you and my outer brain functions know as Jason Statham -- is the lead in Death Race, and his work essentially boils down to punching the gas and kicking some ass. Statham plays Jensen Ames, a decent man in love with his wife and baby girl. But the factory where he works is shut down, and a masked intruder not only kills his wife but sets Jensen up to take the fall. Jensen's shipped off to the local private prison, where the warden, Hennessey (Joan Allen), has been running a little side business where she pits convicts against each other in a no-holds-barred competition called Death Race where criminals race cars bristling with weapons and ammo. Win five races, you're released. Die on the track, well, that's just the kind of thing the audience is tuning in for. But ratings have been slipping since the race that sidelined the legendary masked racer Frankenstein. The audience doesn't know that Frankenstein is dead, so Hennessy asks Jensen to take the part over. Frankenstein has four wins under his belt, so if Jensen wins one more, he's free. ...
And again, if you're asking yourself "Wait, why would Jensen get credit for Frankenstein's wins?" or "Wouldn't the release of violent offenders require the authority of some legal office above and beyond a warden's decisions?", then you need to calmly, slowly, step away from those questions and retreat into the exhaust-fume, gun-smoke fog of idiocy Death Race wreaths itself in. Jensen's introduced to his pit crew, led by Coach (Ian McShane), and given the keys to an armor-plated, heavily-armed Mustang. Each driver also gets a navigator/gunner, brought over from the women's correctional facility; Jensen's is Case (Natalie Martinez), who exists to wear low-cut tops and walk in slow motion as bow-chicka-wow-wow music plays. As Coach notes, "It's all about the ratings; pretty girls, fast cars. ..."
And Death Race provides pretty girls and fast cars, plus more: pretty men; bare-handed executions; slow-motion replay vehicular manslaughter, the second-best 18-wheeler stunt of the summer after The Dark Knight's IMAX oopsy-daisy, a supporting character covered in ornate tattoos including a clearly-visible tattoo of himself on his own neck and a plot device where Death Race contestants activate offensive weapons, defensive gadgets and deadly obstacles by driving over lit-up indicators in the track like power-ups in a videogame. There's a strong chance, Jensen realizes, that the Death Race may not be fair and honest, and again, as your higher brain functions are sneering at his outrage, your R-complex is on board with his anger: Hurt them! Hurt them, bald man who talk cool!
Anderson's directorial resume isn't exactly a Uwe Boll-style wasteland of dreck, but it's hardly been especially distinguished; Anderson began adapting videogames, leapt to bigger budgets and bigger stars (Soldier, Event Horizon) and then got knocked back to videogame adaptations and sequels no one really wanted, the sort of films with plenty of acronyms and colons in their titles (D.O.A.: Dead or Alive, AVP: Aliens vs. Predator). Death Race isn't going to put him back on the A-list, if he ever was really there, but it's well-made and fun. Anderson seems to take every chance he can to aim the camera through other elements -- smoke, glass, water, flame, iron bars, dust, and so on -- to capture the focus of the shot, and while that device is hardly a hallmark of greatness, it's lively. Anderson also wrote the script, which comes close to the kind of weary, adrenalized cynicism that early John Carpenter had: The world is a horrible place ruled by evil people, and one good tough man's actions probably won't be enough to set it right - but, we may as well have fun watching him try.
As for Statham, well, at one point he must have made the decision to be an action star, and as Charlton Heston says in Planet of the Apes, "You got what you wanted, tiger; how does it taste?" As in every film where he plays the lead, Statham's muscles have more definition than his character, and we're fine with that; I wouldn't want to watch Statham play King Lear, but I'm more then content to watch him growl, grimace and glare his way from one fight to the next. Allen is a calm, cold-blooded cardboard cutout, a plotter and planner who tells Statham "Foul language is an issue for me ..." as she's filling him in on her intention to conduct mass murder for a mass audience. McShane's velvet tongue makes every gristly bit of lumpen dialogue come alive, and when he looks directly at the camera to comment on his final lethal bit of business -- in a moment that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever -- he conveys the winking, wiseass wisdom of someone who knows exactly what sort of film he's in. Many fans of the Rodger Corman-produced original have objected to this remake's re-inventions -- the original film's cross-country race and points for killing pedestrians or outlandish costumes don't make it into Anderson's script -- but trust me, Death Race 2000 is a film far better glimpsed through the misty water colored haze of memory than in the cold, clear light of the present tense. Death Race is spectacular nonsense, and before we coast into a fall and winter of genteel Oscar contenders and fine-tuned prestige flicks, it's a welcome last pump on the gas from big-money, low-I.Q. summertime action.