Death Race 2 could have been titled “Death Match” and would have been just as accurate. About half of the film contains no event that the title is copied from. There’s a race early on, sure, but it’s not the event that we’ve come to know and hopefully love. You see, this is a prequel to Death Race, kind of like how The Scorpion King 2 wasn’t a sequel to its predecessor. This one deals with the origin of the man known as Frankenstein (portrayed by Jason Statham in the last Death Race).
The movie begins with the same statement we were told about the first time around. In 2012, the economy crashed and private corporations now own all of the prisons in the United States. That gives them the right to do whatever they want with the prisoners, apparently. As the audience already knows, they will eventually hold races to the death — the titular “Death Races,” which are sold to a PPV audience for absurd amounts of money. We begin before the races, though, when caged fights to the death were the main attraction.
We begin even before we learn about any of that. The lead is Luke (Luke Goss), a man who has some ties to crime boss Markus Kane (Sean Bean). A job goes wrong, Luke gets put in jail, and then we learn about what’s going on in the prisons. He won’t rat out his boss and friend, so he’s imprisoned for life. He goes through the same sort of hazing as Statham’s character did in the last film, and eventually finds himself told that he’s going to participate in The Games, whether he likes it or not.
So, what we have here is basically a retread of Death Race, except instead of a race for the first half, we get a fist fight. Then, we get the race that a reported 20 million people in the movie universe want to see. It’s exactly what you’d expect, although there’s a somewhat lesser charismatic character in the lead role. It doesn’t matter, as most of the people watching are going to want to see cars bang and clash, and shoot tons of guns that blow stuff up real good. At least, that’s as good of a guess as I can make as to why the race would be so popular.
Anyone caring about silly things like plots will not want to see Death Race 2. It’s a prequel that describes a story that doesn’t matter, but it’s a “prequel” in the loosest sense of the word. It’s really just a different story with the same basic structure that’s tangentially related to the last film by a character that doesn’t even come about until the last few minutes. Frankenstein doesn’t even exist for most of this movie, and once you find out how he does come to be, you’ll almost wish you hadn’t.
I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but the most interesting part about Frankenstein — insomuch that there is a most interesting part about a guy who sits in a car and wears a mask — was the mystique that surrounds him. We didn’t know what happened to him that made him adopt the mask, he didn’t talk to any of his competitors, and he worked well as a silent protagonist. Explaining him kind of takes away from that mystique, and I actually got less interested in him as the film progressed.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Death Race 2 is the cast that the filmmakers have managed to get to agree to appear. Ving Rhames shows up as the boss of the television network that shows The Games, Danny Trejo takes over the Ian McShane role as our protagonist’s head mechanic, Sean Bean is the aforementioned crime boss who is frequently angry, while Robin Shou and Fred Koehler reprise their roles from the last Death Race. For a film with a $7 million budget, there’s quite a bit of talent here.
Unfortunately, none of the talent is put to much use. The only actor to get a lot of screen time is Goss, and he’s so drab on-film that I’m inclined to say that Statham should win an Oscar by comparison. Rhames, Bean and Trejo all get very little time on-screen, which is unfortunate but probably a testament to the low budget; they’d only be on the set for a few days thanks to their lower contracts. The action is pretty well-made for the low budget, and the film looks just as good as its predecessor does.
I’ve been down on Death Race 2 so far, but truth be told, I actually liked it more than the first one. I was bored by the end of Death Race, as it all felt like the same thing happening over and over again — and none of the people inside the film appeared to be having any fun. Both of those are rectified this time around; there is the aforementioned “Death Match” which means we’re not always racing, and characters smile and the filmmakers know they’re making a silly B-movie, which makes it more enjoyable.
Death Race 2 is more of the same, even though it’s slightly more enjoyable than its predecessor, in large part because it mixes things up and does it with a sense of humor. It assembles a strong cast of talent, and despite the low budget, doesn’t feel like a cheap effort, even though many of the bigger names don’t get as much screen time as you’d hope for. The action is just fine, and it’s varied, which helps it stay fresh. The mystique of Frankenstein is lost, though, which kind of ruined what little of a character this is.