Friday, April 22, 2011


"Pistol Whipped" director Roel Reiné's straight-to-video sequel "Death Race 2" serves as a prequel to Paul Wes Anderson's "Death Race." Consequently, although it bears the numeral 2 in its title, "Death Race 2" (**1/2 out of ****) is actually the first "Death Race." Reiné and "Chaos" scenarist Tony Giglio, working from a story by Paul W.S. Anderson and Giglio, establish the origins of this amoral auto carnage epic that takes place in a maximum security prison. Fans of the first "Death Race" will be gratified to know that Reiné and Giglio have made conscientious linkages to the theatrical 2008 Jason Statham actioneer by foreshadowing the presence of the future female warden of Terminal Island, Hennessey (Joan Allen), while both Frederick Koehler as Lists and Robin Shou as 14 K reprise their roles from the first film. Of course, director Roger Corman's ultra-low-budget futuristic thriller "Death Race," which co-starring both David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone from 1975, inspired the brawny Anderson remake and this direct-to-video release. Although it lacks the budget of its predecessor, "Death Race 2" ranks as an above-average epic that delivers enough careening thrills and vicious villains to distract you from the fact that it is a quickie fueled by the success of the first film. It doesn't hurt matters that Anderson and Giglio co-wrote the story and Giglio stuck around for this prequel/sequel. The cast is solid, with Luke Goss making a believable as well as sympathetic hero, while Sean Bean, Lauren Cohen, and Deobia Oparei make dastardly villains. They are the kind of bad people that you enjoy watching as they go down for their crimes. The other two big names, Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo occupy the sidelines and don't figure prominently in the hard-hitting action.

As "Death Race 2" opens, the following preamble appears: "In the future, the U.S. prison system reaches a breaking point. Private corporations take over all Federal Correctional Facilities. They are now run for profit. The Weyland Corporation is the new owner of Terminal Island Penitentiary." When we see the Terminal Island lock-up for the first time, a riot breaks out fueled by racial tension and it is broadcast on television. The action shifts to the heavily-guarded estate of crime boss Markus Kane (Sean Bean of "GoldenEye") who is paying off a wager to his long-term employee Carl 'Luke' Lucas (Luke Goss of "Charlie") while they discuss a bank heist that Kane's nephew Vinnie has brought to him. Kane treats Carl like a brother. He goes so far as to give him a money clip; according to Kane, the money clip was first thing that he bought when he immigrated to America. Afer they discuss the bank job, Kane present Carl with an aggressive looking Orange Ford Mustang that has undergone the Shelby conversion so it looks terrific. When Carl questions the concept of driving such a conspicuous car, Kane observes that the one who stand out the most are the least conspicuous. While the impromptu bank robbery is going down, Carl waits for Vinnie and company outside the bank. Carl spots trouble when two uniformed cops park in front of him and enter the building. The cops interrupt Vinnie and company in the middle of the hold-up, but Carl distracts them and ends up killing one. Afterward, Carl leads the cops on a careening auto chase, finally depositing Vinnie and his partner when he can safely do it before resuming his flight from a growing number of black and whites. Before he drops Vinnie off, Vinnie lobs several hand grenades into the on-coming police cruisers and flips them. Eventually, Carl winds up on a freeway that hasn't been completed and the authorities corner him. Presto, he winds up in Terminal Island. The district attorney makes Carl and talk and walk offer to inform on the notorious Markus Kane. Our honorable protagonist refuses to rat out his boss. Meanwhile, a paranoid Kane decides that he cannot trust Carl now that he is an inmate because prison exerts changes on a man over which he has no control.

Initially, the Weyland Corporation begins broadcasting pay-per-view gladiatorial showdowns dubbed 'Death Matches' between two prisoners who fight to the death or submission so the corporation can net high ratings. During these matches, the prisoners are provided with opportunities to arm themselves with weapons if they step on shields that allow them to appropriate those weapons. Virtually, every one of Weyland's businesses is floundering, except his pay-per-view competitions on Terminal Island. When these broadcasts fail to yield consistently high ratings, unscrupulous Weyland Corporation employee September Jones comes up with an idea for the races. September Jones is an interesting character. She is a beautiful woman who won the Miss Universe beauty pageant title, but she lost it when she was accused of having used her charms on all five judges. The corporate head (Ving Rhames) modifies Jones' proposal so that any convict—no matter how reprehensible--who wins five races will have their sentence commuted. Goldberg (Danny Trejo of "Machete") serves as Carl pit team crew chief. Goldberg—a Mexican Jew—is assisted by Lists (Frederick Koehler) and Rocco (Joe Vaz of "10,000 B.C."). Jones assembles the convicts and explains that there are only nine cars and everybody scrambles to acquire a ride. What they don't know and what neither Reiné nor Giglio do an adequate job of explaining is how the woman wind up acting as the riders with the drivers.

Carl winds up driving a 5-speed manual Fifth-generation Ford Mustang, armed with dual M134 Miniguns for offense, and a smoke screen, napalm, and oil slick for defense,[6] as well as a 6-inch-thick (150 mm) detachable steel plate on the rear bumper called 'The Tombstone.' Triad driver 14 K (Robin Shou) commandeers a Porsche 911. This is five-speed manual vehicle with a stock 2.7L six-cylinder engine, enforced with dual World War II German MG-42 belt-fed general purpose machine guns, four hood-mounted missiles, and four missiles on the roof. The worst convict of them all, African-American prisoner Big Bill (Deobia Oparei)steers a 5-speed automatic truck with a 5.7L V8 Hemi engine, armed with a cowcatcher, four hood-mounted Browning M1919s, two side-mounted Vulcan cannons, and Russian RPG-7s. At one point, Bill blows up his own pit crew. Xander Grady drives a Buick Riviera turbo three-speed automatic with a 430C.I. V8 engine. Grady’s Riviera is enforced with German MG-34s, Uzis, and PPSH-41 submachine guns. Hill Billy drives a four-speed, BMW automatic with a six-cylinder engine, built out of bullet-resistant steel. The rest of the competitors drive equally elaborate vehicles with an arsenal of weapons.

Reiné manages to keep the muscular action snapping along at a breakneck pace with minimal nudity and profanity. All of the villains richly deserve the demises that they get and "Death Race 2" ends just as our hero is converted into the metal mask wearing adversary. The screenplay contains more nuance that this kind of exploitation nonsense usually boasts, especially in the rivalry between the Triad inmate and a white supremacist. Luke Goss resembles Jason Statham with his shaved head and muscular pared down physique. Oddly enough, Danny Trejo is given nothing brutal to do; he stands around and makes jokes about being the last Mexican Jew. Compared to most straight-to-video sequels, "Death Race 2" is worth watching.