In 2012, Terminal Island (a notorious high security prison) is owned by the Weyland Corporation, run by Weyland (Ving Rhames) as a profit centre. An unscrupulous TV producer, September Jones (Lauren Cohan) witnesses a riot there and has the bright idea to stage death matches, on pay-per-view.
Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) is a getaway driver who is arrested after a bungled robbery but, rather than rat out his boss Markus Kane (Sean Bean), he keeps quiet and gets sent to Terminal Island. There, he meets up with Lists (Frederick Koehler, repeating from Death Race), Goldberg (Danny Trejo) – “the only Mexican Jew”, and Rocco (Joe Vaz). Once Kane puts a $1 million bounty on his head, Lucas is drawn into the death matches, where he catches the eye of female prisoner Katrina Banks (Tanit Phoenix). When the death matches fail to bring in the ratings, Jones suggests car races to the death instead.
Everything about this suggests that it shouldn’t work – it’s direct-to-DVD, the sequel to a remake of a low-budget exploitation film from the 1970s and stars a lot of people you know but – Sean Bean and Ving Rhames aside – have never been in a hit. Add Paul W.S. Anderson to that (producing and story credit) and I was nervous. But, a few niggles aside, I needn’t have been.
You don’t need to have watched either of the preceding films (since the 1970s version is only referenced by having a character watch it on TV, and it’s a prequel to Death Race), as this sets itself up well and for the first half or so, it keeps up a good pace and is quite smart. The death match section doesn’t make a lot of sense and pads out the film somewhat because, really, this is all about the cars and it’s a good halfway through the film before we really get to them.
The direction is assured and hyper, sharing a common fault with a lot of action films these days, where it’s all cut together so quickly that you’re never quite sure of what you’re watching. But the camerawork is inventive and clever (though the director has a bit of a soft spot for slo-mo) and works well. The acting is good across the board (though Sean Bean really ramps up his accent), but quite a lot of dialogue is said with characters backs to the camera, as if some of it was being made up later (did I mention Paul Anderson wrote the story?).
The production design works well, from the nice and shiny outside, to the grim and almost derelict interior (clearly an abandoned factory, rather than the prison it purports to be and the nice digital painting of the exterior gets flipped every other shot) and the cars all look fantastic. Speaking of fantastic, both Lauren Cohan and Tanit Phoenix are very easy on the eyes, but it’s the men who are more lovingly viewed by the camera – an interesting turn about and the film also gains points for not taking the easy route and chucking in some gratuitous nudity.
On the negative side, the film is at least ten minutes too long with some unnecessary character work (if cons are only introduced so that we can figure out who’s in the crashing cars much later on, they don’t need dialogue scenes) and the aforementioned death match sequences. The accents range across the board (it was filmed in South Africa), which gives the film a confusing identity (though Goss carries off a very good US accent) and why is Trejo a ‘Mexican Jew’ when the name is only ever used for a laugh? Also, if you’re going to use CGI blood, make sure it stays on the floor where you clearly show it spatter!
But that’s outweighed by the action – very well choreographed – and the excellent, inventive stunt-work and so, all in all, this is a good, slightly more intelligent than normal, Friday night movie. Great fun!
My screener copy had a selection of deleted scenes (I could see why they’d all been excised) and what the director called a “deleted shots montage” which was, basically, all the cool shots he liked which hadn’t made the final cut. It felt a bit like watching a great trailer with no voiceover.
There were also three featurettes – The Race Begins (6.5 minutes) is a decent behind-the-scenes piece, Stunts (9.5 minutes) is interesting, but Cars (seven minutes) gets a bit wearing after a while.