Death Race 2 (Universal)
The direct-to-video prequel to the 2008 Death Race (itself a remake of Roger Corman’s cheaper, smarter and slyer 1975 drive-in feature Death Race 2000) stars Luke Goss as a getaway driver for a crime boss uncle (Sean Bean) who runs his gang with no family sentiment.
Arrested after killing a cop in a disastrous bank robbery gone south, he lands in a corporate-run prison where the inmates are contestants in televised Death Match contests concocted by a self-promoting beauty queen turned self-made media mogul (Lauren Cohan). When the ratings start to slip, the prison yard is turned into a booby-trapped obstacle course and the Death Race—part demolition derby, part live-action video game battle on wheels—born, complete with armed-and-dangerous vehicles that are apparently rigged to blow upon impact. Meanwhile, Goss is rewarded for his loyalty—he’s kept his mouth shut and taken his sentence like a soldier—by Bean putting a bounty put on his head to make sure he stays silent. Which, of course, adds a little more spice to the race. Or at least it’s supposed to. As things play out, a killer looking to make a little extra money by killing Goss isn’t all that different from every other sociopath who tries to thin the herd and increase their odds by killing their competitors.
It’s not so much that it’s bad is that it simply isn’t particularly interesting, entertaining or inventive. This is simply crude action movie exploitation, a competently made but ultimately generic spectacle of speed, blood and explosions, shot in South Africa where the production dollar goes a little farther. The budget was spent on the industrial ruin race track, the crashes and the explosions, not the screenplay. Director Roel Reiné provides better action than you get in most DVD originals, which is really all he was aiming for with this modern prison/gladiator film. Any of the attempts to satirize reality TV or the media appetite for bloodsport (shown in instant ratings tracking as viewers turn away when the carnage slows) is left behind in the wreckage of the losers. But at least the careening action is actual metal-on-metal stuntwork and not the slick, antiseptic CGI spectacle served up to often in place of real filmmaking.
Goss (a former British pop star) does the tough, taciturn criminal-with-a-code thing without offering much a personality behind the pose. Ving Rhames takes a small role as the ruthless corporate bigwig who owns the prison and the TV channel, Cohan and Tanit Phoenix provide the eye candy with low-cut outfits and tight-fighting tops (but no skin, not even in the longer “unrated” version) and Frederick Koehler and Robin Shou reprise their roles from the 2008 incarnation, but only Danny Trejo appears to be having any fun. Frankenstein lives in Death Race 2, but there’s not much life to the film.
Features commentary by director Roel Reiné (really? we needed to know how this was made?), deleted scenes, a montage of deleted shots (with an intro by Reiné) and three short production featurettes. Well, at least it’s something to know that they actually took it seriously. I only hope that the producers don’t plan another 1,997 Death Race knock-offs to bring us up to 2000.