By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 shocked viewers in 1975 with a cross-country Grand Guignol Prix in which drivers scored points by plowing through innocent bystanders.
The new, unimproved Death Race is set in 2012, proving even the most vicious road ragers can mellow in just a dozen years.
Now the drivers only kill each other. They are prisoners confined to careening around Terminal Island while pay-per-view audiences safely watch at home.
The prisoners are driving to win freedom, not the celebrity that Corman's version savagely ridiculed. Even roadkill in Death Race 2000 sacrificed themselves for the fame of being splattered by a sports star. That's entertainment, at least when mavericks like Corman gleefully redefine what entertainment is.
Death Race writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson — not the talented Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) — defines entertainment as anything featuring a game console. His movie is Grand Theft Auto: Terminal Island, in which nitrous-fueled armored cars crash, guns roar and the clink of high-powered bullet casings spilling onto pavement nearly drowns out the droning music.
The driver we're cheering is a framed man. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a former professional racer whose wife is murdered, and he's left holding the knife. It's part of a scheme hatched by warden Hennessey (Joan Allen!) to keep Death Race popular.
The sport's greatest hero, Frankenstein (David Carradine in the original), is finally dead. Hennessey needs a great driver to wear his mask and keep the dream alive. Jensen doesn't mind since another Death Race driver is the guy who stabbed his wife. He'll have shapely navigator Case (Natalie Martinez) riding shotgun for navigation and ballistic assistance.
The race is three stages, about two too long, although Hennessey tosses a few Xbox obstacles in the mix. Possibly the worst damage in Death Race is done to Allen's reputation as an actor. She doesn't need a job that calls for lines like: "Activate death heads" and "Release the dreadnought." Does she?
On the other hand, Ian McShane (Deadwood) understands what a steaming pile of bunk this movie is, playing accordingly as Jensen's mechanic, Coach.
Anderson raises hell to an exhausting level but the Terminal Island limitations eventually make everything look the same. Nearly 90 minutes pass before Jensen and his rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson can't compete with a young Sylvester Stallone) realize what they can do with the firepower at their disposal.
Death Race isn't as funny, freaky or satirical as Death Race 2000. It's a remake toned and dumbed down for modern tastes, or lack thereof. The movie amuses but doesn't exactly thrill.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.