My thoughts on 'Death Race 2000' are on record, and I let it be known that I'm quite the fan of the mixture of tongue-in-cheek comedy and action found in the Roger Corman classic. Sadly, I cannot say the same about the 2008 remake. Sure, I'm a fan of Jason Statham, as he's possibly the best (and only) moderately young action superstar in film today, but after watching those awful 'Transporter' films, the last thing I wanted to see was more Statham + car = carnage films. It didn't help that the heart and soul of the original was surgically removed by Paul W.S. Anderson, changing the cross country race into a prison yard battle, with random course distractions, an in-race rewards system similar to a video game, a boring plot, and no memorable characters or lines whatsoever.
It's rare I enjoy a prequel film, at all. It's even rarer that I enjoy a prequel to a film that I personally took offense to. But here I am, and I'm about to say that 'Death Race 2' kicks the shit out of the 2008 remake with vigor, even if it is still light years away from the days when Caradine and Stallone would associate themselves with films of this ilk. This is slightly above average DTV fare, with enough winks and nods to make the viewing worthwhile.
Terminal Island Penitentiary is just one of many prisons in the United States being run by private organizations, where prisoners work to build weapons to be sold on the cheap, and their lives are the source of much entertainment in the outside world, as pieces of barbaric meat. Death Match, a pay-per-view program, stages fights between prisoners that can only be won by a competitor submitting, or being killed. The ratings were good, at first, but an increasing number of tap outs are making blood lusting audiences lose their interest, while prison riots are also interfering with the ratings and viability of the program.
Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) is in for life, after being part of a botched bank robbery that saw him kill policemen. His mob boss, Markus Kane (Sean Bean), wants Lucas dead, so he can't turn and rat out his former boss once the harsh prison life got to him. September Jones (Lauren Cohan) wants Lucas dead, too, but only if it will benefit the ratings. When Death Match has its plug pulled, Jones pushes for a new event to utilize the inmates at prison owned by the Weyland Corporation (ran by Ving Rhames as Weyland himself, a rarity considering his fit in prison films), that will utilize more of the dead space in the island facility. This event will tap into the existing Death Match fan base, and give them more destruction and mayhem than they ever got before. This event will be known as Death Race.
I couldn't quite decide if I loved or hated 'Death Race 2.' It's really a tough one to judge. One one hand, the film makes plenty of allusions to the original (including a scene where the film can be seen playing at Kane's mansion), and even partially makes 'Death Race' a bit less sucky by giving it a better scope. On the other hand, there are so many cliches, recycled poor ideas, and complete wastes of screen time and potential that it's hard to not hold the problems against the film, budget and talent constraints be damned.
'Death Race 2' is full of the problems that riddled the remake the first time around. First, the navigators. In the original, they had a point, as they were actually navigating and plotting courses for speed across the country, but now they're just shameless eye candy, without the added wanton nudity to seal the deal. The girls in this film are literally introduced to the drivers once the drivers first step foot into the cars they are to wreak hell with, save for Katrina Banks (Tanit Phoenix), who seems to get in the way in the Death Match days, for no obvious reason. These ladies seemingly only exist to indulge male audiences at their very base level, with no valuable dialogue, no character development, and no point, even if they occasionally are utilized on a weapon on the armored vehicles. The plates run over mid-race are still there, and are a horrible idea to this day. It works in Mario Kart. Not in a film that's not a cartoon. Meanwhile, remember those annoying "market share" meters that made absolutely no sense in 'The Condemned?' You know, the ones that magically spike right after there was seriously brutal action, as if channels automatically change to the show with the most blood spilt? Well, they're made a major plot device, and that only amplifies the amount of fail that they are. It would be one thing if a match that was intense brought more viewers the next time, but people don't magically know to go buy a pay-per-view already in progress (talk about wasted money!) right when the good stuff happens. If anything, they just missed the goods. Are people really that stupid?!
I also wonder how stupid the pit crews and navigators in this film are. The prison race course is in the same vein as a traditional Nascar track's shape, featuring left hand turns. Yet, drivers that hit a weapons plate will have their machine guns activated. That should mean instant blown out wheels and torn up occupants in any vehicle ahead of them, right? Sadly, no. Each time Lucas has a person behind him with a gun firing (and there are more than a few moments of such), we hear someone scream "You gotta get outta there, Luke!", as if he had somewhere to go. Hello? Round track? Additionally, things get really stale once racers start getting killed, as the same formula is followed for more than a few kills. Lucas incapacitates a vehicle, and another driver swoops in for the easy kill, maintaining the likability and morality of our hero. This makes no sense. We're supposed to like him, and the point is to be a vicious killer. Yet, here he is, saving other drivers, and not doing any dirty work. This doesn't make any sense, particularly when considering the actual scope of the film.
Despite all that, 'Death Race 2' has potential, and will surely appeal to fans of the original, once all the hand to hand combat stuff is on the back burner. This film is in all actuality an origin story for Frankenstein, and it's not a bad one, at all. It actually works quite good, especially when you start to see those little hints and nods. The show suddenly elevates and becomes interesting due to such, making the annoying faults suddenly less important. It may be fan service, but it saved this film, in my eyes. There are plenty of direct-to-video films much worse than this, and many of them don't have Danny Trejo to chew up some scenes. Heck, there are plenty of mainstream theatrical films that still don't hold a candle to this misled prequel of a remake that's titled like a sequel.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Death Race 2' arrives on Blu-ray from Universal on a BD50 Dual Layer disc, housed in a standard (non cut-out) case, with the standard Universal blue spined slipcover for first pressings. Before the main menu, users are prompted as to which version of the film they'd like to see, rated or unrated, and this selection can be reversed on the actual main menu. There is no annoying pre-menu content, though the load time is pretty slow, so it's possible some users may get stuck with pre-menu BD-Live prompted trailers.
'Death Race 2' looks somewhat like the cheap direct-to-video fare that it is on Blu-ray, with a questionable AVC MPEG-4, 1080p transfer.
Stylistically, 'Death Race 2' doesn't lend itself to a beautiful high def pop, particularly with its overblown contrast. Still, there are tons of marks and divets in faces and set pieces, quality picture depth, and some random bits of strong color and visual flare that make this a somewhat enjoyable experience. The sprays of blood that come from almost every blunt blow in a fight, as well as random debris, are clear as day, and may be the highlight here. Sadly, skin tones are hit or miss, random textures are murky, there are a few soft shots (brief as they may be), and black levels range from excellent to outright abysmal, particularly in some night scenes where they show up almost grey, flickering with some bizarre horizontal lines. 'Death Race 2' also has some very choppy editing, making it difficult to focus on the picture and its details in certain segments. Much like the film, when it works, it works, but when it fails, it fails miserably.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix given to 'Death Race 2' is a bit unstable, too inconsistent to earn a great score, despite having some very powerful, entertaining moments.
Rears aren't frequently used, as any non-fight segment or non-race segment is straight forward, literally, in its presentation. There are some nice blistering highs, and some powerful bass roars, but at the same time, we get a few screechy moments, and more than a few scenes and segments that should have had rip roaring bass levels that don't. Soundtrack selections seem flat (and moments of score are just unintelligible noise), while engines literally purr, instead of being powerful and loud. Some room dynamics are questionable, and ADR lines don't fit in at all, standing out like the ghost of Hayden Christiansen. The race segments are very entertaining, and they take advantage of the 5.1 to provide some fun localization and movement effects, but this one is just all over the place, and not in a good way.
Perhaps the best bonus on this release is the bonus DVD. A combo pack without the forced MSRP super-hike and barebones skimped version? I like it!
'Death Race 2' is still miles and miles behind the film that had three 0's at the end of it, but this direct-to-video prequel-sequel of a remake is still enjoyable when it hits its stride. The Blu-ray disc for this actioner is solid all the way around, enough to make this one worthy of a purchase. Just check your expectations at the door (if 'Death Race' didn't already pulverize them), and see if you can enjoy the origins of the Death Race.