The original movie was one of those cheeseball classics. If you've ever said, "10 points!" when driving past an old person in a cross-walk, you may not know it, but you're quoting Deathrace 2000. It starred David Carradine, was schlocky in a way that didn't take itself seriously, and was thoroughly enjoyable as long as you didn't take it too seriously either. This modern remake misses the mark, badly. It takes itself very seriously, and fails to leaven the grim, dark, and ugly premise with any sort of humor, redemption. It is an ugly movie. From the opening frames, which are of an industrial nightmare of a factory, to its half industrial, half steel-string rockabilly soundtrack, to its relentless misanthropy, to its cheerless and tacked on "happy" ending. Ugly. I almost felt physically revolted in the first few minutes, and wondered if I really had the stamina to sit through the rest of the movie.
The premise is dark; in the near future social and economic collapse leads to a for-profit prison industry that boosts its bottom line with gladiatorial bloodsports. In "Terminal Island" correctional facility, there are races amongst inmates in heavily armed and armored cars, with the winner of five races going free - the losers ending up dead. There are twists - the offensive weapons will only arm after drivers roll over a lit "sword icon" and defensive measure only activate after crossing a "shield icon" - clearly the majority of the profit from this movie will come from the video game franchise, and they've built it right into the film. The main character, played by Jason Statham, is an ex-race car driver who is framed for the murder of his wife in order to replace a mysterious masked racer who is popular in the ratings. Oh, and hot chicks are bussed in from a woman's prison to be navigators. For some reason.
Really, that's about all the plot you need, and mostly all you get. Some of the resolutions are tacked on clumsily after-the-fact, and for the most part the movie can't decide if it's a revenge actioner, a psychotic buddy movie, a dystopian social commentary. It doesn't do any of them particularly well - being extremely gruesome in some beats and then strangely reticent to show blood in others. The story, as thin as it is, doesn't hang together very well, and character development is clumsy and sometimes replaced with even clumsier exposition. Little attempt is made at humor, and what's there isn't particularly funny. A more appropriate tone would have been to go for a sort of Romero-esque splatter-comedy social-commentary. The kind of movie where you twist in your seat and say "Oh, that was some sick shit!" even while you kind of grin at it. But no - the many prime opportunities for one-liners are wasted on limp exclamations like, "I guess he didn't like the oatmeal either." And listen, when you have Al cock-sucking-mother-fucking Swearingen (Ian McShane) in a movie, there ought to be some truly badass and profane interjections. Another opportunity lost.
The vehicular action is...implausible. From the simple mistakes, like calling a 7.62mm rotary autocannon a 30mm (which would NEVER fit on the hood of a Mustang) to the unlikely performance of vehicles laden with heavy armor and ordinance. It's what the movie's all about, so one would hope some modicum of believability (which would enhance the tension, not detract) would make its way into the film. But no - sometimes a .50 cal can blaze away for minutes at a plate of sheet-steel from ten feet away without any effect other than dinging, and sometimes a single shot can send a car rocketing into the sky in a fireball of (ugly) doom. The FX are as rigged as the race is within the context of the movieworld, and just as inconsistent - something that snaps the viewer out of their willing suspense of disbelief.
Any of the elements that might have leavened the dark, dirty ugliness of Deathrace were wasted. What's left is a pointlessly violent movie about poor people killing each other for a false hope of freedom, or maybe because they just like to hurt each other. And it's ugly, truly ugly. Ugly in its appearance, ugly in its premise, and ugly in its execution. This is a bad movie, and not a good bad movie, like Corman's original schlockterpiece.