In the world of direct-to-video sequels and prequels, the phrase “What the fuck were these ass-clowns thinking?” often sprouts up. But, once in a while, something comes along that makes you say “Hey, that wasn’t half-bad!” Such a case seems rare, especially when you’re forced to wade through the multiple bastard cinematic offspring the American Pie and Disney franchises have brought us in the past. An even rarer example in the field of straight-to-DVD low-budgeteers occurs about as often as the State of California passes a law that doesn’t screw over its residents, but, nevertheless, I seem to have found such a movie.
In fact, I found Death Race 2, a prequel to Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2008 Death Race — itself a “premake” (half-sequel/half-remake) of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 from 1975 (is, uh, everybody with me so far?) — to be an utterly enjoyable b-movie blast! Set several years before the events in the previous film, Death Race 2 tells us how the mysterious driver known as “Frankenstein” from the previous films (as portrayed by the late David Carradine in one way or another) came to be.
The story (which is, thankfully, helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson once again, with assistance from the director of Soccer Dog: The Movie — so you know you can expect quality) opens with a bit of John Carpenter-ism: a prologue informs us that the planet’s economy plummeted in 2012 (no doubt to all those fools who thought the world was going to end on December 21), leading private corporations to fund prisons in order for the rich to stay rich (bastards). One such prison, Terminal Island Penitentiary (the same penal complex from the previous film — a nod to the Stephanie Rothman flick, perchance?), finds itself a goldmine when it begins to broadcast violent pay-per-view fights to the death between its death row residents.
Enter getaway-driver-turned-accidental-cop-killer Carl “Luke” Lucas (played by the aptly-named Luke Goss). Sent to stir for a botched robbery planned by his employer, Markus Kane (Sean Bean, who pretty much phones it in here), Luke finds himself amidst several hostile creeds of clans and disgraced Miss Universe champion September Jones (Lauren Cohen) who is determined to come up with something more profitable than her hit show “Death Match.”
Naturally, when Miss September learns of Luke’s superior driving skills, she and the big cheese of The Weyland Corporation himself (Ving Rhames, chalking up yet-another b-movie classic to his résumé) brainstorm to create “Death Race.” Reluctant to even glance at Jones or her deadly-lucrative schemes, Luke becomes an unwilling participant in the grandiose competition — but soon changes his mind when a) his captors start to threaten his nerdy friend, Lists (Fred Koehler, reprising his role from the last film); b) learns that Kane has appointed a bounty on his head; and c) that, should he win the five-race event, he will receive a full pardon and released.
Those of you who haven’t seen the first film(s) won’t have any trouble settling in with Death Race 2. In fact, a casual viewing of this soon-to-be-cult-classic will only prompt you to check out the newer Jason Statham movie and (hopefully) the original midnight-movie favorite starring Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine. Also starring in this fast-paced thrill ride are Robin Shou (also recreating his character from Death Race), Tanit Phoenix (the “love interest”), and Machete’s own Danny Trejo as Goldberg, the Mexican Jew (paging Dr. Epstein!).
While Death Race 2 is a joy to behold — even for a jaded b-movie buff such as myself — some of director Roel Reiné’s editing skills leave a little to be desired. The monumental “Death Race” portion of the movie itself (or, the core of the whole thing) seems to lack a little of the fuel it should be powered by. Acting-wise, the movie exhibits some of the fine thespian proficiency you would expect from something that was made specifically for the home video market. Nevertheless, these flaws wind up taking a backseat (ha-ha) in the long run. Let’s face it: anyone expecting perfection from a movie like this should seriously have their engine checked.
Universal Studios Entertainment brings Death Race 2 to life via Blu-ray and DVD. Both releases give viewers the option of seeing the film in its original R-Rated version as well as an Unrated form. Sure, you have to wonder why a straight-to-video picture bears the familiar “This film has been modified from its original version to include additional material not in the original release” stipulation (why didn’t they just go with “unrated” and have done with?), but hey, you get to choose which rendering to view, right?
On DVD, Death Race 2 is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen ratio; Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Spanish and French soundtracks; and optional English (SDH) Spanish and French subtitles. The picture comes through brilliantly for a Standard-Def issue, while the 5.1 audio mix succeeds in delivering the goods. Special Features include an audio commentary from director Roel Reiné, a handful of deleted scenes (as well as a montage of deleted goods, just so you can see more explosions), and several behind-the-scenes/making-of featurettes diving into the creation and production of the film.
In short: Death Race 2 is a delight (I’m certain that a follow-up isn’t far behind). It’s sure to entertain people that have a certain soft spot for guilty b-movie pleasures, or them folks that just like to see cars speed ‘round and blow up real good (cue the SCTV “Farm Film Report”).
Oh, and be sure to check out the selection of online video games (via the movie’s official website) such as “Blow Her Clothes Off” (NSFW, fellas) where you can race past female inmates at such a speed that their clothes will strip away (another guilty pleasure for you, kids!).