15 March 2011

Death Race 2

Death Race 2 Is Actually Really Cool
By Kristin Battestella

Okay, there are certain series where I would not recommend one watch the after the fact prequels first: coughstarwarscough.  However, I decided to take in the 2010 Death Race 2 prequel before its 2008 pseudo predecessor Death Race, which itself is a remake of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000.  While some fans may find faults here or in the original and its recent update, Death Race 2 was actually fun, entertaining, and pretty dang cool.

Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) drives heists for Markus Kane (Sean Bean), but is arrested during one job turned wrong and sent to Terminal Island Prison.  Run for profit and entertainment, these anything goes prisons are controlled by Weyland (Ving Rhames) and his Weyland Corporation.  Luke’s fellow prisoners Lists (Frederick Koehler) and Goldberg (Danny Trejo) are forced to compete in Death Match- a televised fight to the death orchestrated by Weyland’s ruthless and profit minded host September Jones (Lauren Cohan).  When ratings begin to fail on Death Match, Jones ups the deadly action and drama with Death Race, where prisoners compete in remodeled vehicles with the likes of machine guns and napalm. Survive five races of auto carnage and you win your freedom. Luke reluctantly competes in the race- but Kane fears he will testify against his criminal enterprises and orders a $1 million hit on Luke, making the Death Race even more, uh, deadly for Luke and his navigator, female prisoner Katrina (Tanit Phoenix).  

Death Race 2 [Blu-ray]Despite being just an action racing direct to video sequel at face value, director Roel Reine (The Marine 2, Black Ops) adds some interesting concepts and onscreen stylings to put Death Race 2 a cut above the rest.  Corporate penitentiaries run for profit with built in ways for keeping down their population- i.e. let them kill each other.  Of course, it is a preposterous notion; but one might not expect to find some intelligence and debate here about whether death and entertainment incarceration is any better than traditional attempts at protecting society and rehabilitating criminals.  There are also intriguing possibilities with freedom for the victor- you could end up releasing some seriously wicked people!  However, this offer of renewed opportunities and hope could be just the salvation for which these imprisoned men are looking.  Death Race 2 kind of reminds me of The Quick and the Dead actually.  Is this not a 21st century take on Wild West themes of revenge and redemption and gunfights with style? It’s really neat the way we see the Death Match television design onscreen- even if the announcer does sound like they borrowed him from Ultimate Fighting or something.  Yes, writer Tony Giglio (Chaos) and franchise producer Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) know who their audience most likely is- that ever precious 18 to 34 male demographic.  Nevertheless, it’s again pleasantly surprising to have this film within a film attention to detail not often seen in the usually made on the cheap action genre.  Death Race 2 does indeed have all the action and sex and treats today’s hip shows need, plus some fun and wit in the dialogue, too.  We can’t take all this prison stock car racing super seriously! Although this is certainly better than the Episode 1 pod race, I’ll tell you that.  And hey, isn’t the Weyland Corporation causing all the trouble in Aliens? 

I didn’t think that much of Luke Goss in One Night with the King, but he seems cool enough for Death Race 2.  Is he as worthy as his predecessor Jason Statham in the minds of B kick ass action aficionados? Perhaps not yet, but he’s getting there.  Goss’ accent is tolerable- not necessarily American but unable to place elsewhere- certainly not like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie where his French ways must always figure into the plot.  Again, unlike One Night with the King and the weird straggly hair, I personally think Goss looks much better with a shaved head; was his casting and style meant to mirror Statham? It need not. Carl Lucas is quite likeable, with a firm sense of honor and loyalty despite his criminal of all trades profession. This future Frankenstein is a completely different character that comes into his own here and needs no comparison.  Likewise, Danny Trejo’s (Desperado, Predators) Goldberg is a lot of fun as the seemingly big and scary but lovable and sardonic pit manager.  Not a lot of people could get away with lines like, “Mother fucker’s crazy. But cool.”  The cast is very well rounded and perfectly international, too- even if some are only given room to serve in the usual stereotypical roles.  Frederick Koehler (Death Race, Oz) as the annoyingly innocent Lists is just as cool as Deobia Oparei’s (Doom, Dredd) ruthless Big Bill.  Also returning from Death Race, Robin Shou as 14K sticks to a fine code of honor- in some ways, the folks in prison aren’t half as wicked as the people on the outside!

Speaking of juicy and corrupt, Lauren Cohan (The Vampire Diaries) is love to hate worthy as September Jones. Yeah, she’s kind of bad, but it’s the so bad its good type. How wicked is it when she looks at market shares while sending men to fight to the death for entertainment? Of course, it’s all bitchy and shallow and meant to be sexy, even nasty in all the good ways; but it’s nice to see some leading lady ruthlessness. Although, if she’s going to show some balls, September also has to wear some ridiculously boobs out slutty corporate suits, naturally.  Fortunately, there’s also some cheesecake round card girls to be had, too. Tanit Phoenix (Lost Boys: The Thirst) has plenty of physical action presence, but either her dialogue is really bad or she can’t deliver her lines very well.  We get quality talk about healthy sex, for sure, but naturally, there’s also a lot of rape potential in these prisons where my goodness the chicks wear so little! Hot prison sex is only good when it’s consensual- and my goodness isn’t anyone concerned about diseases in this place? At least the navigator girls are included in the racecars for equal opportunity deaths!

Now then, in addition to all the other unexpected goods of Death Race 2, any film listed as “with Ving Rhames and Sean Bean” is a-okay in my book, oh yes.  It should be understood that Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, GoldenEye) can and should open any and all films by having breakfast with an unnamed topless girl fresh out of the pool. I’m just saying.  Even the talk of soccer being the greatest sport in the world earns a free pass thanks to that introduction!  Bean also has the sacrilegious privilege of destroying a flat screen television- but who knew such destruction could be so cool? Oh, and his relatively quiet woman can also be found later in an equal state of undress on top of the kitchen counter.  Bean’s got a full service- if a little unsanitary- household, eh? Thankfully, Kane isn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the violence while still delivering some aptly badass dialogue.  Bean is in the film for a respectable amount of time-unlike some of his recent stateside appearances coughpercyjacksoncough- but there should have been more. Kane’s cruel and deceptive and we know he will get what he wants. Hot diggity dog. Likewise, Rhames’ (Pulp Fiction) pimpin’ corporate suits and business attitude is sweet.  We know he can put Miss Jones in place when needed, damn straight.  He sees the bigger and much more interesting possibilities of playing with prisoners’ lives rather than their deaths and has the know how to do it.

While I like cars, I don’t know anything about how authentic all the weapons and armored car designs are here.  However, they look damn sweet and most of the super duper car information, ammunition, and modifications are displayed in the Death Race onscreen graphics.  Sometimes, it’s tough to tell who is who in the race, but the graphics are used to name everyone and amusingly mark off the fatalities accordingly. The Terminal Island design is also high tech future apocalyptic and yet crappy destruction with dangerous rusty metals at the same time.  The dark and dirty street design juxtaposes nicely with Bean’s sunshiny sweet pad, too.  The filming and race choreography is fast paced, but the camerawork is not so herky jerky in design that nothing can be seen.  The use of slow motion is actually nice as well- being reserved for the stillness, somber, and sweet or deadly mistakes. It’s not the badass slow-mo of 300 with pimpin’ music narrating, but rather time is allowed for the viewer to breathe and pay attention to more than just the cool car chases and violence.  Dare I say it; Death Race 2 seems longer and deeper than it probably really is. Who knew all this could be done in a ninety minute direct to video action prequel?

It might be possible to make a big screen serious action science fiction drama with this material- at least it used to be done with the great Escape from New York types.  Then again, perhaps the eighties and early nineties superior action heyday is truly past? For as low end as Death Race 2 is supposed to be, it isn’t half-bad.  With some of the poor quality theatrical releases in recent years, it’s easy to say this film is better than the likes of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift or some of those Nicholas Cage movies that go to the cinemas just to go bust. Perhaps Death Race 2 could have been released in theaters; but it probably would have gone unnoticed anyway and not made as much money as the DVD designs can.  Looking smashingly, the unrated blu-ray edition contains both rated and unrated versions. Although, I think it is somewhat strange for a direct to video release to have two versions plus deleted scenes, but it’s nice it’s all there. Super intrigued fans can enjoy the featurettes detailing all the stunts and cars glory, too.  I am, however, becoming more and more annoyed by all the BD live ‘fresh preview from the internet’ things that hog up the blu-ray rental discs.  Actually, I’ve yet to rent or own a blu-ray in which I’ve been interested in accessing all the instant interactive magic.  When you only want the movie, the blu-ray interface sometimes seems more trouble than its worth.  Subtitles are of course also necessary here for the low dialogue, and handy volume control is a must as the damn menus and action are so effing loud. I think I woke the neighborhood!

In addition to the language and female treats, some unsightly male prison nudity frames keep this one out of the youth viewing column.  Some of it is hot- like when the pretty men and women end up in the showers- but some of the other flabby prisoners on display, eh, not so much.  Some of Death Race 2’s also a little flawed in its overall need to be cool WWE badass design.  There are audiences that will eat all that up, but there are also viewers who can find more substance here. Fans of the cast, tantalizing T-n-A, sweet action, cool cars, and some surprising credibility should give Death Race 2 a chance.  It won’t win any Oscars, sure, and I might or might not follow up with Death Race.  But I can certainly think of far worse ways to spend ninety movie minutes!  Cool. 

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