If you’re anything like me, then you’ll normally read the introduction of a review and skip to the end for the star rating, until after you’ve seen the film. In which case, I’ll take this opportunity to point out, straight away, that Death Race 2 is fantastic, bloody, fun and delivers in every way you’d expect, and in many ways, better.
Made as part of Universal Studios Home Entertainment wing, it has been pitched perfectly as the kind of action movie night in that so many of us were raised on, aimed directly at its audience with no pretensions and without the extortionate amounts of money that most films have to shell out for any chance of a decent cinematic release.
What’s changed, though, since the DTV (direct to video) days of sequels in this case, is the quality in all areas of production and casting. After being left feeling short changed by the lack of screen time in Universal Soldier: Regeneration given to cover stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, I was fully prepared for Death Race 2‘s stellar supporting cast of Sean Bean, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames to be conveniently killed off within minutes of appearing. Instead, all three of them have consistently important roles throughout.
The film itself revolves around the origins of the race itself, as well as contributing towards the myth surrounding Death Race‘s main protagonist from both the old and new versions of the movie. This time, the lead is one Carl ‘Luke’ Lucas, played by Luke Goss (of Geek favourites Blade 2 and Hellboy 2), who ends up in prison when a bank heist goes wrong (when will movie bad guys ever learn?), then accidentally triggering the evolution of the prison-based entertainment show, Death Match.
The concept of the Death Match is what you’d expect, with prisoners battling each other for ‘rewards’, using trigger points to activate weapons. Although the fights we see add a Running Man level of violence and excitement that, for me, were more exhilarating than when the film inevitably makes its transition to four wheels.
I was surprised that the film wasn’t called Death Match: Death Race 2, as the battles are as integral to the film as the racing and consume a good chunk of the run time and, perhaps, would’ve helped dissuade people from thinking the whole film would be a straight retread of the Statham version.
Talking of Jason Statham (which I tend to do rather a lot), Luke Goss had the unenviable task of stepping into his shoes. I’d already been building up a steady respect for Goss, since he spattered walls with blood in his opening scenes as Nomak in Blade 2, a character that many people had no idea was played by him, with his normally chiselled features buried beneath make-up and gore.
Recently, Luke Goss impressed me further by reteaming with his Blade director, Guillermo del Toro, in Hellboy 2, as yet another unrecognisable character, Prince Nuada, but I still had reservations that he would be able to cut it as a straight action hero.
Thankfully, despite taking a while to warm to Goss’ character, Lucas, when he steps up for his character’s heroic turning point, I was sold. And despite being ripped to within an inch of his life, Goss brings a certain humility and warmth to his action hero, which worked especially well in the film’s more comical moments.
Death Race 2 also sees several familiar characters making another appearance, such as Frederick Koehler playing Lists, and Mortal Kombat‘s eternally underused Robin Shou, as 14K, who add a level of continuity and some solid support into the mix.
Add Sean Bean having a blast in full, potty mouthed, gangster mode, Ving Rhames as a sinister letch and Danny Trejo lifting every scene he’s in with his own unique brand of cool, and there’s a lot to keep the entertainment level up between the action.
Where the film falls down, though, is when it tries to handle its female characters. Tanit Phoenix plays adequate enough love interest, Katrina Banks (as with the first film, introduced as in-car navigator), but has very little to do apart from act a bit tough and conflicted from time to time, although she sparks quite well with Goss.
Lauren Cohan, as the film’s ruthlessly ambitious arch bitch, September Jones, doesn’t fare anywhere near as well, unfortunately, filling the character type that Joan Allen previously occupied.
Now, Joan Allen is a superb actress and easily portrayed such an intimidating character, even when facing off against Statham’s bulk, due to her presence and skill. Yet, even Allen suffered from having to spout a teenage attempt at shocking dialogue in Death Race, which didn’t work on any level. I didn’t think it was that controversial, but felt very self-conscious.
Cohan, who’s relatively unknown, doesn’t really stand a chance and shares more in common with the cringe inducing moments from G.I. Jane, even sharing the awful “suck my dick!” line, which should never be spouted by a female action movie character ever again.
Things aren’t helped when both she and Phoenix are constantly framed in teenage-boy-o-vision (similar to Bay-o-vision), with the camera sticking closely to cleavage and crotch shots. I think what’s more of a shame, though, is that the female cast wasn’t given the same attention as the males.
Now, I know that Death Race 2 is sticking to the formula mentioned at the start, and it’s very difficult to think of an eighties/early-nineties action flick that didn’t have the gratuitous visit to a strip club, but you can’t try and make a female character seem empowered and then stick her in a shower. It just draws attention to the primary reason she appears to have been cast.
The version of Death Race 2 screened still had moments of unfinished effects, including some green screen shots, but, if anything, it added to the B-movie charm. It’s fast, looks slick, has some great performances and is never dull or nonsensical, a crime committed by so many other similar films.
Death Race 2 stands out from its home entertainment peers and could, no doubt, have an extra star added if you’re a teenage boy, craving an action movie fix with a group of friends.
Death Race 2 comes to Blu-ray and DVD on 27th December from Universal Pictures International Entertainment and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.
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