What do you get when you supercharge Roger Corman's 1975 B-movie Death Race 2000? A fried cheeseball.
Set in the near future during the bitter final throes of capitalism, Death Race is a relentless and soulless action fantasy.
Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is a laid-off factory worker who conveniently has a background as an elite race-car driver. Framed for his wife's murder, he is jailed at the forbidding and inescapable Terminal Island and forced to take part in the ultimate demolition derby.
Hardened convicts in armored and heavily munitioned vehicles race through a bleak industrial setting, trying to kill one another. (These guys wouldn't last an hour on the Garden State Parkway.) The spectacle is a highly lucrative pay-per-view event.
Now all Ames has to do is win the race, get revenge on the evil warden (a frosty Joan Allen), and gain his freedom. He gets help in his quest from a wizened old screw (nicely played by Ian McShane).
Whenever things look darkest and his implacable foe Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) is bearing down on him, Ames pulls off some miraculous razzle-dazzle behind the wheel.
Death Race is Ben-Hur for video-game junkies. Around and around they go, machine guns blazing.
Director Paul W. S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator) has fashioned an impressively dark and grim look for the film, draining the screen of color while filling it with carnage. Visually, it's like a collision of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man and Mel Gibson's Mad Max.
But even that surface appeal wears thin as Death Race grinds toward its obvious and implausible conclusion.
As the three-day race enters its final stage, McShane mutters, "This should be interesting." He's right. It should be. But it isn't.
Death Race is a cinematic dreadnought: imposing on the surface, hollow at its core.
Death Race ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. With Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Joan Allen and Ian McShane. Distributed by Universal.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong violence and language)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http://www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/david_hiltbrand.