Well, here’s one way to help eliminate prison overcrowding. Take a bunch of your best lifers, strap them into a contraption that is half-tank, half-car and let them try and take each other out on live television. It not only makes for riveting TV, but also frees up a couple of bunks for incoming convicts.
That’s pretty much the premise of “Death Race,” a thriller with a twist that hits theaters on Friday. At first glance it looks like any other film in this genre—fast cars, big explosions, men talking smack. But this continuation of “Death Race 2000,” goes a little deeper than that thanks in part to clever casting.
Taking the lead is Jason Stratham as Jensen Ames. He’s been convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life. Once he arrives at the prison warden (Joan Allen) offers him a deal. If he’ll drive in the race and wins, she’ll sign his release papers. A reluctant Jensen agrees but soon finds out he’ll have to do more than drive fast to get off that island.
Jensen’s strongest competition is Machine Gun Joe played by Tyrese Gibson. He’s a dark and complicated character who is trying his best to take Jensen out. He, too, totally bought into the warden’s promises until he realized there was something was amiss around the old cellblock.
This type of vehicle is tailor made for Gibson who has regaled us with his prowess behind-the-wheel in “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Waist Deep” and “The Transformers.” In this one he actually gets a chance to act outside the car, too
Rounding out the cast is “Deadwood’s” Ian McShane as Jensen’s coach and Natalie Martinez, a female inmate who rides shotgun with Jensen.
Another thing that separates “Death Race” from the rest of the pack is the cinematography. In a film where the cars are the real stars, director and writer Paul W.S. Anderson, wisely uses his close-ups as windows into the minds of the lead characters. Stratham’s intensity cuts through the lens like a machete through a silk flag.
And if you thought that Allen, an actress known mostly for dramatic fare that doesn’t include machine guns or speeding cars, was miscast, think again. Allen totally brings as the maiden warden who is seemingly intent on jacking up the lives of all the men on her watch—including the ones who aren’t on lockdown.