If you were pleasantly surprised by the over-the-top action, violence and vehicular mayhem in 'Death Race,' Paul W.S. Anderson's remake of Roger Corman's classic 'Death Race 2000,' then you will be happy to hear that 'Death Race 2' is precisely what you want it to be: over-the-top action, violence and vehicular mayhem. If you weren't a fan of Anderson's film, however, you can safely move along as there's realistically no chance that you'll find more to be entertained by in this Roel Reine-directed follow-up.
Unless, of course, the only reason you were turned off by its progenitor is because you, for whatever reason, hate Jason Statham. If that's the case, you may want to consider this straight-to-video sequel since it's got a new lead in the form of Luke Goss. And don't let that label deter you one iota, either: 'Death Race 2,' despite its World Premiere on DVD and Blu-ray, not only looks and sounds leagues better than most of its STV brethren, but it even has better production values than some recent theatrical action extravaganzas (that means you, 'Expendables').
You also shouldn't let the number in the title mislead you; 'Death Race 2' is actually a prequel that shows the creation of the titular televised spectacle that pits prisoner against prisoner in a deadly (and awesomely absurd) car race.
And while it is director Rene Reine's impressive ability to make his assuredly smaller budgeted production look and sound as vulgar as the first film that will draw people in, it's Tony Giglio's script that makes this more than a simple cash-in on a recognizable title. It does still suffer some of the problems that all prisoner competition movies suffer, but for every familiar malady - the inevitable rigging of the races, the sexy female producer that'll do anything for ratings - there's a welcome breath of fresh air.
For starters, Luke Goss' character is an actual criminal. He's not a wrongly accused man fighting for his life, he's not a victim of betrayal out for revenge, he's not a casualty of the system; he's a murderer. A murderer with a conscious, granted, but it is a nice change of pace to have a hero that isn't the squeaky clean, "I don't belong here with these animals!" type. This may seem a small choice, but it's a deliberate one that helps give the film much needed grit in all of the right places.
Of course it doesn't hurt that Goss has more charisma and talent than you'd expect from the lead of films of this ilk, but that's not much of a surprise to anyone who has previously taken note of the often overlooked actor in any number of his other straight-to-video films (with his villainous role in 'Hellboy 2' being one of his few prominent theatrical roles). The rest of the new cast (you can count the carryovers from the first film on one hand, though I won't spoil who they are here) are certainly commendable, but all of the supporting roles are threadbare at best despite a few higher profile names - Sean Bean and Ving Rhames being the largest - filling their shoes.
Beyond the simple, but effective background of Goss' Carl Lucas, Giglio's script also tries its best to feature action outside of the races. Some of it is more thrilling than others (the highlight being a unique weapon choice we see in the deadly televised games that paved the way for Death Race), but even the film's duller moments are at least diverse enough to keep it from becoming a base clone of Anderson's film. Straight-to-video be damned, 'Death Race 2' maintains what made the original enjoyable while still striving to stand on its own two feet. If you're expecting anything beyond that, you're likely not the kind of person a film like this is made for in the first place.