Death Race 2 (2010)
Luke Goss (Carl Lucas/Frankenstein), Lauren Cohan (September Jones), Sean Bean (Markus Kane), Ving Rhames (Weyland), Tanit Phoenix (Katrina Banks), Deobia Oparei (Big Bill), Fred Koehler (Lists), Robin Shou (14K), Danny Trejo (Goldberg)
“In the near future, the US prison system reaches a breaking point. Private corporations take over all Federal Correction Facilities. They are now run for profit. The Weyland Corporation, is the new owner of the Terminal Island Penitentiary.” – Opening text (Yes, that comma is there in the movie too.)
Death Race was a perfect prequel, a set-up to the ideas expressed in Death Race 2000. A sequel to Death Race is not a bad idea, it can bridge the gap between the two movies. But that’s not what Death Race 2 is, it’s a prequel to Death Race, giving us the story of the guy in the Frankenstein mask who Jensen Ames replaced. So not only are we taking a step backward, but we’re following a character whose fate we already know.
Surprisingly Death Race 2 manages to overcome this hurdle by presenting us with a protagonist (English actor Luke Goss, playing an American getaway driver) who is eminently likeable and almost entirely different from two-fisted sarcasmoid Jensen Ames. Unlike Ames, Goss’ Carl Lucas is entirely guilty of the crime which he has committed; he’s a getaway driver for a major crime boss and in the opening he kills a police officer as part of a botched robbery. Lucas has his own code of ethics, twisted though they are, and deeply regrets the death of the officer he kills.
Lucas is taken to Terminal Island where enterprising weather girl September Jones has turned the prison’s violent inmates into money makers with the televised program Death Match. Death Match is a head-to-head cage match to the death with various weapons, but the prison’s market shares are going down so Jones comes up with the idea for Death Race using the assortment of junk cars and military ordinance made from the melted down car parts to make a new pay-per-view event.
Death Race is an unbridled success but there are some issues off the track. It seems that Lucas’ old boss Markus Kane (Sean Bean) has put out a hit on him because he’s convinced that he’ll crack and turn state’s evidence against him in prison. This leaves September Jones looking for a solution to how to keep one of her star drivers from dying off the track.
The overwhelming consensus on Death Race 2 is that it is a better movie than the first in most cases. These words are wrong and those who agree with them deserve to feel bad for them, but before I get into why that’s wrong let me first get into why it’s kind of right.
Let me first say that Death Race 2 is by no means a bad movie in its own right. It’s surprisingly competent and I daresay even quite good for most of its runtime. Considering that it’s telling a story with a foregone conclusion and only two returning characters (Fred Koehler’s Lists and Robin Shou’s 14K) it’s practically a triumph. It even makes use of Lists and 14K, fleshing their characters out more from what they were in the first movie. I found that, to my surprise, I really liked them.
The production values are amazing for a movie of this stripe (Death Race 2 was made with about 1/6 of the original Death Race’s budget.) The car chase at the beginning is wonderful and the effects seem to be largely practical, considering that Pulse 2 and 3 went so far as to use CG for their sets half the time that’s pretty amazing. The choppy editing of the first movie does return but it’s a bit more restrained now, generally letting individual shots last from 7-10 seconds before switching to another. The fight scenes are pretty well done, though much choppier than the driving scenes.
Even the cast is fairly solid. Luke Goss has never been high on my radar of actors (I get him and Paul Bettany confused all the time because they’re both pale, British, and dull) but he really works as a leading man here, Carl Lucas is certainly a far more interesting character than Jensen Ames and he comes across as more of a character than Jason Statham did. It also helps that small parts were filled with good character actors like Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, and Sean Bean. Danny Trejo is no replacement for Ian McShane but he does a perfectly good job filling in as Coach’s precursor, Goldberg.
Director Roel Reine is a direct-to-video sequel guy with such films as The Marine 2, Scorpion King 3, 12 Rounds 2, The Man With the Iron Fists 2, The Condemned 2, Behind Enemy Lines 4, and the upcoming Hard Target 2 on his imdb page. It’s really a shame his talents are being wasted toward cash-in sequels.
Now, while I concede that Death Race 2 is a solid film, it’s a garbage sequel. It’s filled with one of my biggest prequel peeves:trying to cram in a story that doesn’t mesh with the original (the movie even lampshades this by having September Jones bring out a picture of Joan Allen as Warden Hennessey and say “I think she would take credit for Death Race if I wasn’t around.”) The sheer amount of bending over backwards this movie does to incorporate itself into established continuity begs the question of why they did a prequel at all. Nothing about the ending of Death Race implied that the races would stop and since, as far as the public knew, Frankenstein was recaptured after his escape attempt there’s no reason why somebody else couldn’t be under the mask.
Ultimately though the biggest flaw this suffers is that it doesn’t really fit as a Death Race film. For one thing, we don’t even get to the first race until an hour into the movie. We deal with Lucas’ crime, his arrest, setting up Death Match, showing how it loses popularity, then coming up with idea, then incorporating it. When we finally get to the racing it feels super rushed with almost all of the unimportant characters dying in the first race, then when we get to the second (there are only two in the movie, the third race starts as the film ends) the closest thing we have to a villain (Big Bill, a sad and sorry replacement for Tyreese Gibson’s Machine Gun Joe) gets dispatched in an offhand manner along with his pit crew who were co-conspirators in Lucas’ murder attempt. Even the transformation from Carl Lucas to Frankenstein is a rush job that seems to come out of nowhere, all of the sudden Big Bill’s truck has heat seeking missiles? Also for some reason now cars explode when they crash, no matter how hard they crash or where they crash they explode. That was one thing the original Death Race shied away from, cars didn’t explode except when hit with actual explosives but now any old damage will do it.
The movie just goes through a check-list of things we saw in the first movie (swords and shields, smoke, death heads, dropping the tombstone) in the most slapdash manner possible, none of it having any significance other than “hey there’s that thing I saw from the other movie.” Gone is the sense of humor or any tongue-in-cheek attempt to make a social commentary, the movie’s premise is played straight and even Lucas’ descent from “man who never kills” to “man who kills a lot” is barely acknowledged. Even the video game feel is all-but gone, though the name of Sean Bean’s character is clearly an homage to Twisted Metal. This movie’s downfall is that it limits itself by trying to be a Death Race movie when it could simply just be a direct-to-video action movie with no ties to this universe and be better for it.
Death Race 2 is fine; it’s a capable and actually pretty decent movie in its own right but it’s a hollow entry into the franchise and a turning point for where the material is likely going. We’ll see how things fare on Friday with Death Race 3.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“You’re franchising Death Race, aren’t you?”
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