Paul W.S. Anderson is not one of my favorite filmmakers. He has consistently destroyed franchises that I had high hopes for and he decides to hand the reins of “Death Race” over to “The Marine 2” director Roel Reine and “Death Race 2” takes a step back in time as it is a prequel to the first “Death Race” film. Shot on a shoestring budget of just $14 million, the film is a direct-to-video release and stars British character actor Luke Goss in the starring role. While I was mildly entertained by the first film, I found this prequel to be a smidgeon more entertaining than the first and felt this would have been a better re-introduction to the 1975 original than the Paul W.S. Anderson directed “Death Race.”
This third “Death Race” film forms the genesis of the Frankenstein character that was prevalent in the 1975 “Death Race 2000” with David Carradine as the antagonist and the 2008 film killing off Frankenstein in the first few minutes. Goss stars as Carl Lucas, eventually becoming Frankenstein. The film also shows the formation of Death Race as a sporting event and the first half of the movie is centered around a bloodsport known as Death Match. Death Match is run by a sexy Weyland Corporation executive named September Jones (Lauren Cohan) and when ratings begin to plummet she forces Luke into Death Match and mayhem ensues.
Once Lucas has been put into play by September, he finds himself having a price put on his head by his former boss and friend Marcus Kane (Sean Bean). Lucas needs to stay alive and the accomplished driver quickly finds allies in fellow inmates Lists (Fred Koehler), Rocco (Joe Vaz), Danny (Danny Trejo) and love interest Katrina (Tanit Phoenix). Under the guidance of Weyland president Weyland (Ving Rhames), Death Race is born and Luke is presumed to be killed. He is reborn as Frankenstein and Death Race becomes a ratings monster and I have a feeling the events that occur between this film and “Death Race” will be told in a third movie, which is likely to be called “Death Race 3.”
As far as this direct-to-video sequel, I am most impressed with the fact that Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames are attached to the project. Trejo’s “Machete” didn’t do the numbers the studio had hoped for, but he and Rhames are both very solid supporting actors and just having them in this film is a boon and an asset. Rhames brought his Kingpin experience to mind in his performance and Trejo took over in the spot previously held by the great Ian McShane. Sean Bean shouldn’t be overlooked as well. Robin Shou and Frederick Koehler reprised their roles as 14K and Lists in this movie. For some reason I recall Joan Allen in this second film, but I believe it was just a photo to suggest she takes over for Warden Parks (Patrick Lyster).
The primary actors are Luke Goss, Tanit Phoenix and Lauren Cohan. Goss is no Jason Statham, but he pulls off the lead role with aplomb. I wouldn’t call him a lesser actor than Statham, but he doesn’t stand out as much. I preferred Tanit Phoenix to Natalie Martinez, but Phoenix is given a meatier role than Martinez had in the first movie. I suppose they didn’t want to lessen Statham’s role. Therefore, the love interest is given a larger role. Cohan replaces Joan Allen in this film and as far as sexy goes, Cohan is a drop dead gorgeous woman. She isn’t quite the caliber of actor that Joan Allen is, but she does “villainous bitch” very nicely. And, with how good she looks, the shortcomings can be ignored.
The writing duties were split between Paul W.S. Anderson and Tony Giglio with Reine directing. I felt this script was a small step up over the story written by Anderson for the first film. I’ll give that credit directly to Giglio. This should have been the first movie created, but it wasn’t and there isn’t near as much racing in “Death Race 2” as there was in the first movie. This was an establishing movie and “Death Race 2” established far more in its slim hour and a half than the first movie did. With some bigger stars and the budget of the first film, this could have had a lot of potential. “Death Race 2” could make for a bankable direct-to-video franchise, but I do feel that this story could have kept the series in theaters.
Where the film works are in its action scenes and visuals. Sure, many elements are recycled from the Terminal Island set and cars from the first movie. This surely kept production costs down, but it looked very impressive for a $14 million film. Considering the acting talent attached, this is definitely one of the best looking low budget films I have ever seen. Again, with a larger budget it would have been intriguing to see what the filmmakers could have come up with. The action was good and while the Death Match scenes were kept relatively short, this was a very nice set. The action kept the movie fun, even if the racing scenes were heavily recycled from its predecessor.
While I enjoyed this movie more than I did the more expensive first film, there are still a lot of shortcomings in this movie. It feels very crammed in its 96 minutes and you get the impression that budget only allowed them to shoot so many scenes before they had to wrap production. There could have been just a little more fleshing out of roles. The cars looked very good and I enjoyed seeing 14K return, but a little more maiming and less deaths would have allowed for some more personalities to shine. Big Bill (Deobia Oparei) was just another short-lived take on Machine Gun Joe. I also felt that reusing the Mustang from the first film lessened the impact as both Luke and Frankenstein used a Mustang. A little more variety would have went a long way.
As I mentioned in my review, I was impressed with how good this $14 million movie looks. The 1.78:1 film is just as visually impressive as the original film and “Death Race 2” shows off some very good detail and about as much coloring as one can get in a post-apocalyptic prison world. Lauren Cohan gets to show off a little color and the 1080p transfer shows her and the rest of the film off rather nicely. The detailing of the death cars is extremely good and you can see the individual creases In Danny Trejo’s weathered face. The transfer is very stable and I don’t recollect any flaws from either the source materials or digital mastering process. This is a detailed and clean transfer that goes above and beyond what you’d expect from a direct-to-video release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is good, but doesn’t have quite the wallop of the original film. A lot of this is because there isn’t too much time spent on the race track and the grand explosions and big effects are scaled back. Still, the Mustang’s V8 is throaty and sound is still extremely good for a low budget affair. Sound comes from all directions and the “Death Match” and “Death Race” sequences are easily the best sounding. The ‘brutal violence’ mentioned in the MPAA warning delivers some heavy hits and the audio drives it home. The musical score by Paul Hasinger is lively and energetic. It has power and presence throughout the film. Dialogue is good and Ving Rhames powerful voice feels extremely deep. Technically, the DTS-HD mix is solid.
Putting in the Blu-ray disc of “Death Race 2” begins with a little window stating it is loading fresh previews from the Internet. This takes a slight longer for the disc to lead, but isn’t technology great? After that, the user is prompted to select either the Unrated Version or the Rated Version of the film. There is two minutes of additional footage in the film with the unrated version. What I found odd was that no previews loaded after this screen. Access to the BD-Live Center and pocket BLU is provided as well as the Ticker, My Scenes bookmarking and D-Box Motion Code. None of these features have anything to do with the film itself. It’s just technology.
There are bonus features for the film itself. A collection of Deleted Scenes (5:46) are first and some of these still show green screen as not all are finished. This is just a smattering of small scenes that were not included in the final product, but a weird dream sequence and slightly more character development aren’t bad to watch. The Deleted Scenes Montagecan be played with (5:41) or without (4:52) a director’s introduction. These aren’t necessarily deleted scenes, but a montage of scenes chosen by the director set to music and with some behind-the-scenes moments included. If you enjoy the director’s introduction, you can listen to him in the Feature Commentary with Director Roel Reine.
Three featurettes are also included. The Race Begins: The Evolution of the Death Race (6:36) promotes how this ‘backwards evolution’ of “Death Race” begins the story by improving upon the original picture. Producer Mike Elliot, stars Sean Bean and Luke Goss join the director and others as they talk about how great the film is. There are some nice behind-the-scenes shots here. Cheating Death: The Stunts of Death Race 2 (9:38) and Fast Cars and Firearms: The Cars of Death Race 2 (6:59) feature a lot more of the heavy backpatting and self promoting as well as some worthwhile making of footage. Overall, these three clips do make for a decent look at the making of the film, but it’s a little too self congratulatory for my liking.
I’m never going to consider myself a Paul W.S. Anderson fan. I typically use four words when I mention the director and the W is usually ‘weasel’ and the S is four letters long. I enjoyed “Mortal Kombat” and “Event Horizon,” but it’s been downhill ever since. “Alien vs. Predator,” “Soldier,” and “DOA: Dead or Alive” are just examples of how he is just a hair higher than Uwe Boll on my list of filmmakers. Honestly, I respect Boll more. Thankfully, Roger Corman keeps some involvement with the “Death Race” series and these films aren’t half bad. This direct-to-video film is decent and far better than almost anything else from W.S. Anderson. The Blu-ray release of this DTV film features some “not-so” special features and a very good looking and sounding transfer. Direct-to-video has come a long way with this release and that’s a compliment.