Luke Goss makes a habit of showy roles in sequels that arguably better the originals, having impressed in Blade II and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Improving on a classic like Death Race was always going to be tough, especially with Jason Statham busy elsewhere – but if this prequel doesn't quite make it, it's still a very creditable entry in the series.
As Carl Lucas, Goss is a strange, intense and frankly homoerotic presence. Unusually for this kind of film, his character is not unjustly accused; he's a bad man getting his just desserts. That gives him a calm centre; he has nothing to lose, little to win. He also has a lean, tight fighting style that convinces the viewer he could take down men twice his size. The cast is action royalty: Sean Bean, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames (as Weyland – is this part of the Aliens universe?), plus a brace of actors returning from the first film, including Robin Shou as 14K.
After opening with a bank robbery and car chase that are much too good for a film this cheap, the film keeps us waiting for its car battles; frustrating upon first viewing, but we get to watch Death Race evolve from earlier gladiatorial events. When the races begin, it could easily be footage recycled from the first film, in true Corman style, but it's apparently new, the original cars having been bought back from collectors. As with film one, there's a physical pleasure in seeing real cars tear around a course.
Fans know Lucas is heading for a terrible accident, and the film teases by putting him up against flamethrowers in the arena. When he burns, the make-up is suitably horrifying, the moment feels significant. Curiously, we see here the origin of Frankenstein, and Death Race began with his death, but we've yet to see him in his pomp (other than in Corman's original). It's a lacuna one feels is sure to be filled; I'd like to see what this director would do with a serious budget.
There's more casual racism and sexism than I felt necessary, and not quite enough gore. Nor is it the cross-country sequel we really wanted, but with several exciting action sequences and a cast that plays it straight Death Race 2 sets a new high for direct-to-DVD sequels.
Death Race 2, Roel Reine (dir), DVD/Blu-Ray, 1hr50mins. This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #2.