I think we've gotten to the point in Jason Statham's career where it's no longer necessary to give a reason for why he's such a badass. He just is. In DEATH RACE he plays Jensen Ames, a former racing champion who at the start of the film is getting his walking papers from some industrial factory that's being closed down.
So far no reason to suspect he's capable of his next action: beating the hell out of a group of riot police who comes to quell the uproar over the closing of the plant.
No explanation needed: the dude is just badass.
Soon after Ames returns home to his wife and daughter, is knocked out, and is framed for the murder of his wife. He's sent to Terminal Island Prison, where he's forced to participate in the infamous Death Race, a three-stage no holds barred car race that is the most popular televised event in the country. The evil warden (played by Joan Allen of all people) is holding his baby daughter hostage, so you know Ames is gonna have to not only win the race, but escape, get his daughter back, and engineer an especially brutal demise for all the baddies as well.
Does this come to fruition? Well, of course it does...what kind of movie did you think this was? DEATH RACE seems perfectly content to wallow in its B-movie mechanics, and for once writer/director Paul WS Anderson doesn't get in the way of that. The entire film is loud, fast, and tweaked to emphasize (or de-emphasize) colors and tones accordingly. The editing is the same old 100mph flashy cuts and slow-motion lingering, especially when the female prisoners who act as the race navigators are bussed into the prison. In another film it would be tired, and maybe it is here, too, but I get the sense that this is exactly what DEATH RACE is aspiring to, and that kind of makes it okay. The cast seems to be having fun: Allen in particular, because I guess I just never pictured her doing a film like this. Ian McShane is the obligatory old guy who acts as chief of Statham's pit crew and quasi-mentor, and he's gleeful in the few choice moments he has.
The race itself is probably the best thing in the film: chances are you won't see another race this year that has this much car flipping, machine guns, spouts of flame or blood. This is where Anderson does some of his best work - say what you want about the guy (and man, after ALIEN VS. PREDATOR you have every right to), but the racing in this movie is spectacular. In a bloody, flame and bullets kind of way.
Ultimately, DEATH RACE rests on the shoulders of one tiny, ridiculously ripped bald dude, and Statham rises above whatever silliness the script requires of him. There's no denying he has an easy charm and charisma, but it's a shame that for every great role he gets (SNATCH, THE BANK JOB) he has to do a couple lesser pictures. This is a guy screaming to be used correctly; hopefully there'll be a few more meaty roles to stretch his range a bit.
Long story short: DEATH RACE is by no means a good movie, but it certainly is a fun movie, and probably worth the price of a rental, a couple of six packs and a group of friends to sit around and watch it.