MONTREAL — If you imagined yourself engaging in something called a Death Race, the setting would probably look a lot like this dilapidated, abandoned train factory miles away from the cosmopolitan center of Montreal. Throw in a bloodied Jason Statham and some badass cars that would make Mad Max feel right at home, and you’ve got the makings of something that will clearly be its own testosterone-heavy animal come August 22 when “Death Race” opens nationwide.
Let’s get the burning question of faithfulness to the source material out of the way up front. Sure, Roger Corman’s name is on the producer list and Statham’s character is called Frankenstein, but don’t expect any David Carradine or Sylvester Stallone cameos in this reimagining of the 1975 postapocalyptic cult classic. “[Director] Paul [Anderson] said to try not to pay too much attention to [the original],” Statham said. “It is an homage to that, but this is not a carbon copy in any stretch of the imagination. This is something completely different.”
The setting is a prison of the future, presided over by a nefarious warden, Hennessy (Joan Allen), who has created the so-called Death Race as a spectacle for a hungry worldwide audience (think “The Running Man”).
Meanwhile, there’s Statham’s Jensen Ames, a vengeful antihero if there ever was one. “Something happens that he gets sent to prison,” the “Transporter” star explained. “It’s all to do with the murder of his wife. His young daughter gets taken into foster care. And so he is in prison trying to clear his name. And the only way he can find a way to exit that hellhole is to win five races.” In the film, Statham’s character quickly adopts the Frankenstein moniker — the name of the previous crowd favorite of the Death Race.
The Statham encountered on the set is a much leaner figure than fans of “The Transporter” series are used to seeing (Statham explains that he’s sworn off alcohol in the interest of his new physique), but then this character’s brand of fighting is different too. “He’s a bit of a bad boy turned good from his misspent youth,” he said. “I don’t think he had much skills with the military or in a martial-arts environment. He’s a bit more of a brute or sort of street-fighting sort of guy. We’re picking out weapons instead of doing roundhouses.”
And the biggest weapon at the leading man’s disposal in this film is undoubtedly his car. One of nine modified cars driven by the Death Race competitors, Statham sits behind the wheel of a 2006 Ford Mustang GT called “Monster.” Statham relished every moment. “It’s great to be able to drive something as potent as one of these things,” he said. “This is so unique. I’ve never seen anything like it. You have got mini-guns on there that fire out 4,000 rounds a minute. One of those can tear a car into smithereens within a couple of minutes.” He added that he considers himself “a massive car geek.”
“We are in a race that is life or death,” said co-star Natalie Martinez. “So you go around this crazy course. There are booby traps, people are firing guns at you, there are missiles flying at your head, there is this huge 18-wheeler with machine guns.”
Perhaps what sets this Statham vehicle (pun not intended) apart most is the choice of villain, or really the fact that the villain is worth mentioning at all. (Anyone remember who he tussled with in “Crank”? Yeah, didn’t think so.). Here, it’s no less than Oscar nominee Joan Allen filling the shoes of the warden, Hennessy. Statham’s usual cheekiness turns to reverence at the mention of his co-star. “I tell you, she’s a cold, chilling villain,” he said. “You don’t get the Oscar [nod] for being average. She is as good as they come. So to act across from somebody as great as she is, for me, is a major step forward.”
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