Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy/curiosity factor: I will admit this up front, so you good people don’t get the wrong impression. It’s a two-pronged admission: First, I have never seen 1975’s original Death Race 2000. Second, I very much enjoyed Death Race 2000’s 2008 “reboot” (or as director Paul W.S. Anderson claimed, “prequel”), called simply Death Race. What was not to love about it, really? Jason Statham racing around a prison track in a heavily armed vehicle, assisted by Ian McShane and playing mind games with the warden, Joan Allen? No, it wasn’t smart, nor was it great filmmaking. But it was damn good, nonstop action. Shit went boom-boom, the plot wasn’t overly contrived, and did I mention shit went boom-boom? If you like that sort of thing and haven’t seen Death Race, I recommend it. (I also enjoyed Machete and The A-Team in 2010, so maybe base your decision on that, too.)
Anyway: Death Race 2! New director, new cast, but this time it really is a prequel. In Death Race, Jason Statham takes over for a masked driver named Frankenstein, who’s killed during a race—he assumes Frankenstein’s identity, because the races are big-ticket items on pay-per-view, and that’s how prisons are funded in the future, people. So Death Race 2 is poised to tell the story of the original Frankenstein—how he got to prison, and presumably how he got killed. He’s played by Luke Goss, who I just this second learned was in the ’80s British boy band Bros! How will he possibly pull off being a badass death-car driver after starring in a video like this? Must be the magic of Hollywood.
Anyway, there are three dudes in Death Race 2 who should make up for any lingering pussy-ness that Goss brings to the table: Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, and Sean Bean. That’s right: Machete, Marsellus Wallace, and Boromir, all in one place. No movie—even a direct-to-DVD sequel to a movie that nobody seemed to love (42 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes)—could be all bad with that lineup. I’ve got hopes, which I’ll call medium-sized.
The viewing experience: And those hopes were dashed after 100 pretty snooze-filled minutes. Stuff blowed up, sure, but Death Race 2 is one of those movies—and yes, I should’ve known—that feels like it was staffed entirely by second-stringers. Sure, you can safely say that the screenwriter for Death Race probably wasn’t out to create art, but he at least laid somewhat cohesive groundwork for a bunch of shoot-’em-up race scenes.
You know when the first death race happens in Death Race 2? An hour into the movie. First we have to sit through an interminable backstory, which sets up Goss as a career criminal who’s actually a pretty nice guy at heart. (Aren’t they all?) He’s supposedly been pulling bank jobs for 20 years, and yet the bank job he pulls at the behest of his boss (Sean Bean) is so ridiculously amateurish, you’d think he was trying to be sent to Terminal Island, the most meanest jail anywhere in the future universe!
Once he gets there, after the clichéd prison “delousing” scene that allows us to see his abs, Goss tries to blend in… But this ain’t your daddy’s prison. Prisoners in the cheapest-looking movie-set jail yard in history are sharply divided by race (naturally), and they’re killing each other for fun and for TV. A sexy producer played by Lauren Cohan cooks up “Death Match,” a TV show in which prisoners fight to the death. It’s the precursor, of course, to “Death Race,” except it takes up the entire goddamn movie. You know why? I’m guessing because it’s way cheaper to film hand-to-hand combat on a dark soundstage—even when it involves flamethrowers—than it is to stage big driving sequences with mounted machine guns.
So blah blah blah, Goss fights a big black dude who Sean Bean’s character hired to kill Goss, because Bean is convinced that Goss is going to turn state’s evidence—even though he’s already in prison, and had lots of chances to do so. Goss befriends some dudes who will become his pit crew once the races start, including Trejo—who is completely wasted in the role of “the last Mexican Jew.” (“I killed all the others,” he quips.) Trejo, the consummate badass, doesn’t have dick to do in this movie. He barely kicks anybody’s ass, and when the races finally happen, he mostly stands around with headphones on, saying “Watch out!” to Goss’ character. Machete don’t wear headphones, people.
Oh, and what does big bad Rhames have to do? Nothing at all. He’s the executive in charge of the corporation that owns the prison, so he’s mostly there just to look menacing and make stupid decisions. At one point, in order to get Goss to race (and boost ratings), he gives him a woman. And then there’s a sex scene—preceded by a bit of banter.
And then they make prison-love on a tarp in the back of a flatbed truck. Prison sex is supposed to be between a man and a man, dammit! This movie is breaking all the rules.
Anyway, the evil-but-cleavaged Cohan finally comes up with the idea for “Death Race,” which she handily explains to a group of people, including Rhames. Watch as a light bulb goes off in his head: He decides the competition should be called “Death Race,” as if that isn’t the most obvious name in the world. But hey, he’s the boss, let him take credit.
So finally the races begin, and they’re not nearly as exciting or even as bloody as those in the sorta-original. There are way too many shots of drivers close-up in their cars, acting scared while their “wingmen”—hot chicks from the women’s prison—scream and shoot guns. I’m making it sound more exciting than it is.
Devotees of the first movie will already know how it ends—in a very Darth Vader kinda way. Goss is blown up and badly burned, but he doesn’t die. The prison officials allow him to fake his death as long as he keeps racing—in a mask, under the name “Frankenstein.” (No correlation to the monster—this is the same guy, same brain, just sorta disfigured.) So he comes back, winks at his friends and his girl—you know, the one from the sex on the tarp—and proceeds to murder the sexy-but-evil Cohan, who is conveniently standing on the track and doesn’t make much effort to run away when he backs his car up at her. And then everybody’s happy, except all of the prisoners, who still have to try to kill each other, and the dead lady, and Frankenstein’s family. I guess Ving Rhames is happy, so that’s something.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Ehhhh… Even 10 minutes might be a stretch. If you’re inclined toward these types of movies and you haven’t seen the Statham Death Race, you ought to. But this prequel tells the story of a character who’s only in that superior movie for one scene—and whose face you never see. (Cleverly, he’s voice-acted in Death Race by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.)