Let Death Race serve as a warning, or maybe an inspiration, to any TV producer who says she'd kill for high ratings: Why not stage a pay-per-view car race in which prisoners compete to stay alive on the course? In Paul W.S. Anderson's brisk, bone-crunching retooling of the 1975 B movie Death Race 2000, Joan Allen plays the prison warden her inmates generously call ''the baddest ass in the yard.'' And to emphasize the unsubtle gender joke, costumers sheath Allen's own assets in the kind of suit-and-heels drag that signifies uptight bitch or secret porn star. Both, really: Soft sexual and racial jabs replace the more daring political commentary of the original, a crude classic from the Roger Corman factory.
That was the anarchic '70s, baby; this is the conservative now, delivered by the genre specialist who directed blank-faced destruction in Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat. Cartoon toughie Jason Statham grimaces as the wrongly imprisoned, righteously muscled prisoner the warden has assigned to fill a driver's seat (and face mask) following the demise of the fan favorite known as Frankenstein. As nemesis Machine Gun Joe (originally growled by Sylvester Stallone), Tyrese Gibson does his best imitation of a standard gang leader, cell-block division. B-
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